The United Kingdom has historically provided housing support to people seeking asylum who arrive in the country and are not immediately able to provide for their own basic needs. In recent years this system has increasingly been plagued by serious deficiencies, in violation of people’s human rights to housing, food, education, health, and social security. Instead of addressing these concerns, the UK government is moving forward with plans that double down on failed hostile environment policies by expanding already problematic ad hoc arrangements for “contingency” asylum accommodation in ways that will only increase misery and rights violations across the country.
In particular, the UK government has attempted to justify the use of barges, repurposed military bases, and similar large-scale settings as a means of reducing reliance on hotels that have themselves been repurposed as contingency asylum accommodation. This is no solution: barges and military bases have the same, if not worse, deficiencies as repurposed hotels, afford even less privacy, may be located far from population centres and essential services, and lead to well-documented mental health harms. As with hotels, barges and barracks are unsuitable for anything other than short stays for adults. And although officials have claimed that using barges and barracks as asylum accommodation will reduce costs, the UK government has never backed up that claim; to the contrary, the available evidence suggests that the use of barges and barracks will yield negligible, if any, savings.
The UK Home Office has said that it will not place families with children on repurposed barges or military bases, likely meaning that it will continue to rely on repurposed hotels as contingency accommodation for families for the foreseeable future.
This report, the product of joint research by Human Rights Watch and Just Fair, examines the experiences of families and unaccompanied children in contingency hotel accommodation and identifies practices and outcomes that fall far short of international standards and the requirements of UK law.
In an account that was typical of those we heard, Nesreen R., a 36-year-old woman from Libya, told Human Rights Watch and Just Fair that when she and her family arrived in the UK, the Home Office placed them in Bradford, a town in northern England. Her four children were out of school for a month before she and her husband managed to enrol three of the four in a local school. School officials told Nesreen they did not have space for her oldest child, Tareq, age 14, who has autism. “It is not good for him to stay without school for a long time,” Nesreen said.
As is common in the UK’s asylum system, the Home Office then moved Nesreen and her family more than 80 miles (125 kilometres) away to another hotel, in Scarborough, in the northeast of England. The children once again had to wait a month before they could attend school. The family’s second hotel had originally opened in the 1880s and was in ill-repair. “This was a bad place,” Nesreen said. “It was very old and very dirty, the sheets and carpets were filthy. . . . The beds were all broken, and there were holes in the carpet.” The family received two rooms at opposite ends of the hotel. There were about 60 families in the hotel, and Nesreen did not feel that it was a safe environment for children.
Nesreen said that their stay in the second hotel caused their mental health to deteriorate. Sometimes she would stay in the room for three or four days at a time without going out. The time spent here was particularly difficult for Tareq. Nesreen said, “Sometimes I feel my son is depressed. I tried to talk to him about how he feels, I’ve tried to talk to him to see if he gets on with other kids. He is so sensitive. He’s crying all the time; sometimes he won’t leave his room for two days.”
Health professionals have warned that an increasing number of children in contingency hotel accommodation suffer from malnutrition and other health issues caused by the food they receive. Nesreen told us that her children, who were between the ages of 6 and 14, had “a difficult time with the food.” She explained, “Sometimes it was undercooked. The younger ones didn’t want to eat at that hotel. They all lost weight.” Their experience was by no means unusual: families in hotels across the United Kingdom have faced the struggles Nesreen described in getting her children to eat. Many people described the food they received as insufficient or unhealthy and said their children lost weight, in some cases to such an extent that their doctors expressed concern for the children’s health and development.
Nesreen’s second hotel was in such a state of disrepair that after four months, the family learned the Home Office planned to move them to a third hotel. Concerned that her children’s education would face additional interruptions before the family finally received a “dispersal” accommodation placement, long-term housing for people seeking asylum, Nesreen resisted the move. In April 2023, the Home Office placed the family in a flat in Newcastle, 90 miles (145 kilometres) away from their second hotel. When we interviewed them one month later, two of Nesreen’s children were in school, but 14-year-old Tareq and his 8-year-old brother were still waiting to receive placements.
Tareq told us the extended time out of school was taking a significant emotional toll on him. “I feel bad. I have no friends here. I want to go to school to make friends. I want to study maths and English,” he explained. Nesreen has reached out repeatedly to the local schools in an effort to enrol Tareq and his younger brother. “I explained that he has autism and that not being in school has a big impact,” she said. “But the school keeps replying that he will have to wait.” When we spoke to the family again in August 2023, Tareq had received a school placement, but his 8-year-old brother had not.
As in the case of Tareq and his siblings, children in contingency asylum accommodation are regularly out of school with no education for long periods, even though UK law guarantees the right to primary and secondary education regardless of migration status. Children with specific needs do not appear to receive particular consideration, despite the additional, serious impact being out of school can have on their well-being. Once children are enrolled, their schools may be far from the hotels where they are accommodated. Some schools provide bus passes for children, but others do not. And when families are moved to dispersal accommodation or between multiple initial accommodations, children often face further disruption to their education, integration, and sense of security.
These and other serious shortcomings in contingency hotel accommodation violate the rights to housing, health, food, education, and social security and impede access to asylum.
Barges, barracks, and similar large-scale institutionalized settings share the serious shortcomings of repurposed hotels. As the UK’s experience of using former barracks at Manston and Napier as short-term holding facilities amply demonstrate, effectively warehousing people in close quarters poses serious—and foreseeable—health risks. For example, people living at these sites experienced outbreaks of diphtheria, norovirus, and scabies, as well as an alarming incidence of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. As the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention concluded, large-scale institutional settings such as repurposed barracks and barges “jeopardise the mental health and wider well-being of the people seeking asylum accommodated there, and make them fundamentally unsuitable for use as asylum accommodation.” Far from being an alternative to the use of hotels as contingency accommodation, they are precisely the wrong approach that will only lead to further human rights violations.
Instead of resorting to increasingly unsuitable settings for people seeking asylum, many of whom have already faced considerable loss and trauma, the UK government should urgently change its approach and reverse policy decisions that contribute to the dehumanizing, harmful environment that characterizes much of the UK’s initial asylum accommodation. Placing people in locations where legal support is very limited or nonexistent increases delays in asylum applications—particularly because the UK government has also drastically cut legal aid. Accommodating people in places where they cannot prepare their own meals means that many parents face daunting daily struggles to find food their children will eat, in some cases leading to malnutrition. Barring most people seeking asylum from working ensures dependency and misery and can lead to destitution.
It does not have to be this way. The UK government could save taxpayer money by allowing people seeking asylum to work, choose where to live, shop for their own food, and cook their own meals. In fact, until 1999, the United Kingdom allowed people seeking asylum to choose where they lived, giving them the opportunity to work to support themselves, with cash assistance as necessary to enable them to meet their needs.
Instead of doubling down on the failed hostile environment policies of the past decade, the United Kingdom should invest in a rights-respecting asylum system. To do so, it should provide people seeking asylum with accommodation and other support in ways that allow them to regain a sense of safety and stability, control over their own lives, and human dignity.
As key first steps, the Home Office should ensure that families with children receive suitable dispersal accommodation placements in houses or flats as quickly as possible, strictly applying its 19-day guideline as a deadline for assignment to dispersal accommodation.
Unaccompanied children should be placed in housing that offers the care and protection to which they are entitled. In line with a July 2023 High Court decision, they should not be placed in contingency hotel accommodation. Unaccompanied children whom border agents deem to be adults, often on the basis of appearance alone, should be housed with other “age-disputed” young people pending an age assessment that follows international standards, including by giving the benefit of the doubt in close cases.
For all other people seeking asylum, the Home Office should avoid placements in large-scale, institutionalized accommodation, including barges and barracks, in recognition of the known harms of such settings.
Asylum accommodation and support should operate from the premise that children should grow up in secure and suitable environments, with appropriate and nutritious food on the table and their education, health, and best interests prioritised. Adults as well as children should be able to rebuild their lives with assistance and support that affirms their human dignity. Meeting these fundamental human rights should be the starting point and form the building blocks for the UK’s approach to asylum.
Human Rights Watch and Just Fair interviewed more than 100 people for this report, including 52 people seeking asylum (27 of whom were children) who were either living in or had recently left hotel accommodation provided by the UK Home Office in cities and towns across England, including Bournemouth, London, Maidenhead, Newcastle upon Tyne, Reading, Slough, Stockton-on-Tees, Wokingham, and York. Most interviews took place between May 2022 and May 2023. Human Rights Watch and Just Fair interviewed some people more than once, in some cases following up between June and August 2023 with people we first interviewed in 2020 to understand their progress in the asylum system.
Human Rights Watch and Just Fair also conducted meetings with staff and volunteers from 50 charities, support groups, other nongovernmental organizations, and local authority staff.
We spoke with a mixture of families and unaccompanied children who had come to the UK via different means. These families and unaccompanied children were from a variety of countries, including Afghanistan, Albania, Egypt, El Salvador, Georgia, Guinea, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Mexico, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, Vietnam, and Yemen.
Interviews were semi-structured and covered topics relating to initial reception conditions, age assessments, asylum procedures, hotel accommodation, education, health, and welfare. Most interviews were conducted in person at the hotel itself or at a nearby location. Some were conducted remotely over the phone. Human Rights Watch and Just Fair also conducted physical visits to hotels in Bournemouth, Ilford, Maidenhead, Reading, and Wokingham.
Human Rights Watch and Just Fair researchers conducted interviews in English or Spanish, in some cases with the aid of interpreters. The researchers explained to all interviewees the nature and purpose of our research, that the interviews were voluntary and confidential, and that they would receive no personal service or benefit for speaking to us, and we obtained explicit and informed consent from each interviewee. This report uses pseudonyms for all children and adults.
Human Rights Watch and Just Fair sought comment from the Home Office and from each of the three companies contracted by the Home Office to provide asylum accommodation. Two of these companies, Mears and Serco, responded to our specific questions, and we have included these responses in relevant sections of the report. Clearsprings Ready Homes referred us to the Home Office for comment. The Home Office had not replied to our request for comment at the time of publication.
In line with international standards, the term “child” refers to a person under the age of 18. As the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and other international authorities do, we use the term “unaccompanied children” in this report to refer to children “who have been separated from both parents and other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so.” The term “migrant” is not defined in international law; our use of this term is in its “common lay understanding of a person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons.” It includes people seeking asylum and refugees, and “migrant children” includes asylum-seeking and refugee children.
Many disability rights organizations in the United Kingdom adopt the social model of disability, reflecting that model in the terms used to describe disabilities. Human Rights Watch and Just Fair acknowledge that language and terminology may be used differently across time and contexts, reflecting the evolving conceptualization of disability, and that individuals may choose to self-identify in various ways. Whatever language or terminology one uses, human rights still apply to everyone, everywhere.
The focus of this report is England, and the statutory framework and data collected apply to England but not necessarily to devolved nations in the UK. The research did not examine first-hand developments in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland, the three other constituent parts of the UK. Researchers did, however, hear from national and local nongovernmental organisations that operate elsewhere about the housing of unaccompanied children and families with children in other parts of the UK.
I. Seeking Asylum in the United Kingdom
Most asylum applications in the United Kingdom are ultimately granted. Yet waiting for this determination takes many months, and sometimes years. During this time, most applicants are not allowed to work.
The UK provides accommodation and small amounts of cash support for people who are unable to provide for their basic needs while their asylum claims are pending. People who received accommodation under the system should receive long-term (or “dispersal”) accommodation, typically a flat or a house, after a few weeks in initial accommodation, which may be in a hostel setting. But the UK government’s under-resourcing of the asylum system and other policy decisions mean that stays in initial accommodation regularly exceed Home Office guidelines. As a result, the number of spaces in dedicated initial accommodation is insufficient. To meet the need, the companies contracted by the Home Office to provide accommodation for people seeking asylum have increasingly relied on hotels.
Instead of taking steps to reduce the use of hotels by ensuring that people can be matched quickly with and moved into appropriate longer-term accommodations, and in the face of rising costs and mounting public criticism, the UK government has announced that it will use barges, ferries, disused military bases, and former prisons as initial accommodation for people seeking asylum. The Home Office began to move some people to an airbase in July 2023 despite the known harms of such settings and even though estimates suggested its plan would yield little, if any, savings.
The UK received just under 75,500 asylum applications during the year ending March 2023, up from the 56,500 applications received in the 12 months ending March 2022, and the highest since 2002, when the UK received more than 100,000 asylum applications.
UK asylum application numbers are broadly a reflection of conflict and political instability. For instance, the Home Office acknowledges that the increase in asylum applications from Afghanistan in 2022, when people from that country were the second-most-common nationality applying for asylum, was “likely due to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.”
Asylum applicants are a tiny fraction of the UK population. The 91,047 applicants for asylum made between April 2022 and March 2023 equals about 0.1 percent of the UK’s population. As the Refugee Council points out, “In terms of the number of asylum applications per head of population, the UK ranks 22nd highest in Europe.”
Around three-quarters of asylum applications decided in 2021 and 2022 were successful at the initial decision. Adverse decisions can be appealed; just over half of appeals decided in the year ending March 2023 were successful. In partial explanation for these grant rates, a Home Office analysis notes that “[c]urrently, there are a large number of applications from individuals from recognised countries of conflict.”
At the same time, wait times for initial decisions on asylum applications have increased in recent years, with applications decided in 2021 taking an average of 20 months to receive an initial decision. At the end of 2021, of the approximately 101,000 people awaiting an initial decision on their asylum applications, 62 percent had been waiting for more than six months. In fact, the UK had the second-largest asylum backlog in Europe; only Germany, which received more than three times as many asylum applications, had more people waiting for an initial decision on their claims at the end of 2021.
As of November 2022, more than 40,000 people had waited between one and three years for an initial decision on their claim, and 725 people—including 155 children—had been waiting for more than five years, the Refugee Council found.
At the end of March 2023, more than 170,000 people were awaiting an initial decision on their asylum claims. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged that the Home Office will decide all asylum claims that have been pending since June 2022 by the end of 2023. The Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, and other groups have urged the government to prioritise cases of people from countries with the highest asylum grant rates.
Support for People Seeking Asylum
People seeking asylum who are “destitute,” meaning that they do not have adequate accommodation or funds to meet other essential living needs, are entitled to asylum support, including accommodation. To meet this obligation, the Home Office is required to offer immediate support, including initial accommodation, to people who “may be destitute.” This support is intended to be temporary, allowing a person’s essential living needs to be met while the Home Office evaluates their circumstances. If the Home Office then finds that they do not have adequate accommodation or the ability to meet essential living needs, the Home Office offers them ongoing support, usually including longer-term-accommodations (often known as “dispersal” accommodation), while their asylum claim is pending. Support for people who are “vulnerable,” including children and people who are pregnant, older, or disabled, should take into account their special needs. More generally, the Home Office has a duty to carry out its functions “having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in the United Kingdom.”
Initial accommodation for people who receive temporary support is usually in “full-board facilities,” meaning that all meals are provided; people ordinarily do not have access to kitchens to prepare their own meals. Full-board food service should include “complete and adequate provisions for pregnant women, nursing mothers, babies and young children, for whom three daily meals may not be sufficient, and people who need special diets e.g. gluten free.”
People seeking asylum also receive small amounts of cash support if they would otherwise not be able to meet their essential living expenses.
Initial accommodation is intended to be short-term. The Home Office has usually suggested that it aims to move people to dispersal accommodation within 19 days, though at times it has stated that it expects these moves to happen within 35 days. Between September 2019 and February 2020, people spent an average of 26 days in initial accommodation before they received longer-term accommodation. Stay lengths in initial accommodation increased significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Well after the end of pandemic lockdowns, many people in initial accommodation, including most of those interviewed for this report, described stay lengths of six months or more—in the case of some families, well over two years—before they received dispersal accommodation.
The Use of Hotels as Initial Accommodation
The Home Office has arrangements for 1,750 places per night in dedicated initial accommodation for people seeking asylum. When the number of people requiring initial accommodation exceeds this capacity, the Home Office uses hotels as contingency accommodation. About half of the people in hotels are from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Sudan, and Syria, meaning that their asylum claims “have an exceptionally high likelihood of being granted,” analysis by the Refugee Council has found.
The use of hotels on a contingency basis as initial accommodation increased significantly beginning in 2019. The National Audit Office found that “between July and October 2019, the number of people in initial accommodation increased by 96% from 1,678 to 3,289.” Between October 2019 and July 2020, “the number has averaged 2,800, of which more than 1,000 people have been in hotels each night, rather than in dedicated housing for asylum seekers.”
The UK’s Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration observed in a 2022 report that “[b]y November 2021, 21,500 asylum seekers were being accommodated in 181 hotels, more than double the figures in May 2021.” In March 2023, some 51,000 people seeking asylum were in 395 hotels, of which 363 were in England, a government source told BBC News.
These figures likely do not include people who arrived in the UK under the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme or the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, under which just over 21,000 Afghans had arrived in the UK by March 2023. People arriving under these programmes are not seeking asylum. Many have, however, stayed in temporary accommodation similar to the initial accommodation offered to people seeking asylum who would otherwise be unhoused—in most cases, far longer than anticipated. About 9,300 Afghans were in 67 “bridging” hotels under these resettlement programmes as of December 2022. At the end of March 2023, 8,799 people who had arrived under the programmes were in hotel or other “serviced” accommodation; by the end of June 2023, the number was 6,575. Approximately half were children. Afghan women evacuees placed in “bridging” hotels said that months in a setting meant to be temporary had meant a loss of routine and personal space, led to increased domestic violence, and harmed their mental health. By the end of May 2023, the Home Office had notified all Afghan evacuees that they had three months to find their own accommodation. The UK government said that it was funding “settled accommodation,” houses or flats for people who were unable to find accommodation on their own, but about 20 percent of Afghan evacuees were homeless after their eviction from bridging hotels, the Local Government Association estimated in August 2023.
In addition to single adults and families, the Home Office has housed unaccompanied children in hotels since July 2021. More than 3,000 unaccompanied children were placed in hotels that year, including 725 who were under the age of 16. As of June 29, 2023, 192 unaccompanied children, including 53 under the age of 16, were in hotels. A lawyer for the Home Office acknowledged that one 9-year-old had been in a hotel, a placement that lasted less than 24 hours, but it was not clear when this placement occurred. Nearly all unaccompanied children placed in hotels are boys.
Officials were aware that the Home Office did not have the legal authority to be “running a children’s home,” in the words of one entry on an official risk register. These and other internal documents reviewed by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration repeatedly warned at least as early as August 2021 that doing so was unlawful. For instance, another risk register entry noted: “[If the Home Office] continues to run [unaccompanied asylum-seeking children] hotels without any statutory responsibility . . . we will be breaking the law and continuing to run unregulated children’s homes and continuing to expose [the Home Office] to illegal activity, burnout and trauma.”
After the Home Office effectively lost track of several hundred unaccompanied children who went missing from these hotels, a family court judge ruled in a case brought by the human rights organisation Article 39 that unaccompanied children who arrive in the United Kingdom should be in the care of child protection authorities rather than the Home Office. In a separate legal action brought by Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK), a child rights organisation, the high court found in July 2023 that the Home Office’s routine housing of unaccompanied children in hotels was unlawful because UK law imposes the duty to accommodate and look after unaccompanied children on local authorities. As of June 2023, the Home Office had still not located 154 of the unaccompanied children who went missing from these hotels. The Home Office continued to place unaccompanied children in hotels after the high court’s ruling that the practice was unlawful; 130 newly arrived unaccompanied children were in hotels as of August 15.
Unaccompanied children wrongly deemed to be adults are also placed in hotels, where they are housed with unrelated adults; the Home Office does not publicly report the number of unaccompanied children who receive hotel placements as adults and are subsequently found to be under 18, but a report by the Leeds City Council found that 30 unaccompanied children had been wrongly categorised as adults and placed in hotels in the city between January and August 2023.
For a time, the Home Office attributed the rise in the use of hotel accommodation to the Covid-19 pandemic, saying, “It has been necessary to temporarily house a proportion of asylum seekers in hotels to make sure they are able to follow social distancing guidelines.” While the pandemic certainly contributed to the increased use of initial accommodation, the reports of the National Audit Office and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration show that reliance on hotels for initial accommodation began well before the pandemic started and has continued through 2023.
Hotels used as initial accommodation are usually far more spartan than the word “hotel” suggests. “It is worth noting that even when hotels are used as a form of accommodation, it is highly unlikely that asylum seekers are receiving the same quality of service that a paying guest would receive,” a House of Commons Library report observed. In particular, “[h]otel accommodation usually lacks facilities for children and suitable accommodation for families to share for extended periods,” as the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found in a 2020 report. In fact, as detailed more fully in this report, Human Rights Watch and Just Fair’s research has found hotel accommodation to be frequently unhealthy and unsafe for everyone, and wholly unsuitable for children and families.
Contracts for Provision of Support
In 2019, the Home Office contracted with three companies, Clearsprings Ready Homes, Mears Limited, and Serco Limited, to “meet the accommodation and essential living needs of eligible asylum seekers.” The 2019 contracts replaced an earlier arrangement that had been in place since 2012. Under the new contracts, the companies are required to provide a total of 1,750 initial accommodation places on a permanent basis and are allowed to use hotels if more places are needed. The value of these contracts to the three companies will exceed £4.5 billion in total, with Serco expected to receive £2.1 billion, Mears £1.4 billion, and Clearsprings £996 million over their 10-year term.
The Home Office has not made the contracts themselves public, but it has posted a “statement of requirements” for the companies it has contracted with to provide accommodation. The statement of requirements includes general provisions that each company “shall ensure that it complies with all relevant mandatory and statutory requirements,” including the duty to safeguard children from harm and promote their welfare, along with Home Office policies relating to housing, food, hygiene, and child protection, among other areas.
The requirements call for accommodations to be licenced for their intended use and suitable for people with specific needs and be safe for use and maintained to specific standards such that they are habitable, fit for purpose, and adequately equipped.
Meals in “full-board” accommodations should include at least one vegetarian option, “cater for special dietary, cultural or religious requirements,” and “meet appropriate nutritional standards,” including for people with “health or other specific requirements.” The companies providing accommodation should support people to register with a general practitioner (a primary care doctor, GP). They should also “manage anti-social and violent behaviour (including violent extremism)” involving or affecting people in the accommodation they provide. All contingency accommodation should meet the standards for initial accommodation providing full-board, as set out in the statement of requirements.
The cost of initial accommodation was much higher than that of long-term (or dispersal) accommodation under the previous contractual arrangements. In 2017, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee observed that initial accommodation “cost[ed] around three times more to provide than the dispersal accommodation that follows and it is not regarded as suitable for long stays.” In May 2023, more than 50,000 people were in initial accommodations at a cost, according to a government source, of more than £6 million per day. Although the UK government has not released detailed figures of how much it spends on dispersal accommodation compared to initial accommodation, it is likely that initial accommodation continues to cost more than dispersal accommodation per person per day.
The Home Office contracts have been lucrative for the companies that provide asylum accommodation. Clearsprings Ready Homes increased its profits more than sixfold in 2021, with its three directors sharing dividends of almost £28 million. Mears more than doubled its pre-tax profits from 2021 to 2022, “underpinned by the increased volumes experienced within the Asylum Accommodation and Support Contract (AASC),” the company stated. And Serco was expected to make a profit of about £245 million in 2023, an increase from 2022 that was in part due to “robust demand for immigration services,” according to Serco’s group chief executive officer.
Mears’ response to our request for comment on our findings in advance of publication included the following points:
Mears is an experienced provider of housing across the UK and we have approached the AASC contracts committed to treating all our service users with dignity and respect. Mears has supported over a hundred thousand people across the UK in asylum accommodation and feedback is generally positive about the way our staff work with service users and the quality of our provision. Where there are any issues, we do our best to support our service users and resolve them.
We are committed to ensuring that asylum accommodation is safe, habitable and fit for purpose and will meet all contractual and regulatory standards. Mears understands the importance of supporting each person whilst living in its accommodation and to ensure that as a company it works with the communities in which it delivers services. We work very closely in partnership with local statutory agencies, including the NHS, Councils and the police. We have excellent partnerships in the community with local organisations, NGOs, charities and support groups, sports clubs, faith groups and many more. Asylum accommodation and support provision is complex, and there are many challenges, but we are proud of our dedicated staff and the work they do every day.
Our service users are of all ages and include many children, as part of family groups, and we make specific provision for them at accommodation sites.
Serco included the following general observations in its response:
Serco is one of three providers of asylum accommodation under the AASC contracts with the Home Office. We are responsible for providing accommodation in two of the six contract areas of the UK, namely the North West and Midlands regions. Our teams have extensive experience of providing this accommodation. They are committed to supporting asylum seekers with care, compassion, dignity and respect; fully recognising that many of these people will have had traumatic and challenging experiences and journeys, before claiming asylum in the UK.
Our contracts are to provide Initial Accommodation for asylum seekers and then Dispersed Accommodation in the community. Due to the well-reported numbers of people claiming asylum in the UK, and the availability of Dispersed Accommodation, we along with the other AASC providers, have been required to house large numbers of people in hotel accommodation. Our teams work extremely hard, alongside the Home Office and the Regional Strategic Migration Partnerships, to identify additional Dispersed Accommodation in the community, with the aim of moving people on from hotel accommodation as soon as we can.
As part of our AASC contracts we do provide accommodation for children but only as part of family groups; where they are accompanied by at least one parent or legal guardian. We have no responsibility for accommodating unaccompanied children.
Clearsprings Ready Homes referred all questions to the Home Office, which had not responded at the time of publication.
Until 2012, when the UK government outsourced and privatized vital components of the UK asylum system, local governments and housing associations were responsible for asylum accommodation. Conditions in accommodation for people seeking asylum deteriorated markedly after the shift to private providers, observes Jonathan Darling, a Durham University professor who has studied the asylum accommodation system.
To the extent the UK government’s privatization of asylum accommodation and support is regulated, it appears to be nearly entirely through the statement of requirements and other contractual provisions. When the state privatizes essential services, it has an obligation to regulate effectively to protect and fulfil human rights. As Philip Alston, then the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, observed in a 2019 report on the UK, “[a]bandoning people to the private market in relation to services that affect every dimension of their basic well-being, without guaranteeing their access to minimum standards, is incompatible with human rights requirements.”
The Cost-of-Living and Housing Crisis
Since late 2021, the UK has been experiencing a drop in real disposable income (meaning income adjusted for inflation and after taxes and benefits), leading to the biggest fall in living standards on record.
The cost-of-living crisis has a disproportionate impact on particular groups in society, including people seeking asylum and their children. People seeking asylum are effectively banned from working, meaning they are forced into dependency on the meagre cash assistance from the Home Office. Levels of asylum support are set significantly below mainstream benefits and have not kept pace with the increasing cost of living, meaning life has become progressively more difficult. Many are living below the poverty line in conditions that violate their rights to food, housing, and more generally to an adequate standard of living.
Charities have long warned that asylum support is insufficient to meet basic needs. Jane Williams of the Magpie Project, an organization that supports mothers with young children in insecure accommodation in east London, told Human Rights Watch and Just Fair that even before the cost-of-living crisis, living on the amount provided was already impossible. For a majority of these families, “if they take one more step down the ladder, they will fall off,” she said.
In addition, the UK has long been experiencing a severe housing crisis with the supply of housing, particularly genuinely affordable or social housing, consistently not keeping pace with demand. The current emergency in the asylum accommodation system is one manifestation of the housing crisis gripping the country. With an inadequate supply of appropriate permanent accommodation, people are facing increasingly longer waits in unsuitable and substandard hotel rooms.
In May 2023, in a bid to reduce hotel usage, the UK government announced plans to suspend licensing requirements for shared houses—known as “houses in multiple occupation” (HMO)—if they are used to house people seeking asylum. This plan would strip people of basic housing safety protections, including minimum room sizes, smoke detectors, and electric and gas safety standards. This proposed change puts people seeking asylum, including children, disproportionately at risk. Such regressive changes to the law are possible because the UK has not recognised the right to adequate housing in domestic law.
Successive UK governments have refused to acknowledge or correct the profound damage more than a decade of austerity measures have had on social housing, the welfare system, the public health system, public transport, and other social services. Philip Alston, then the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, observed in his 2019 report on the UK that these measures have inflicted significant misery and harm while failing to yield their purported financial benefits:
The many billions extracted from the benefits system since 2010 have been offset by additional resources required, by local government, by doctors and hospital accident and emergency centres, and even by the ever-shrinking, overworked and underfunded police force to fund the increasing need for emergency services.
Instead of changing course, senior government officials have often used migration to deflect attention from the role their policies have played in the hardships faced by many in the world’s sixth-largest economy. For example, Home Secretary Suella Braverman has frequently suggested that people seeking asylum are not in need of support, implicitly pitting them against people already in the UK who are living in poverty. In July 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that a pay increase for public sector employees would in part be funded by increasing the fees associated with most work permits, student visas, and residence permits.
Hostile Environment Policies and Recent Proposals
The shortcomings of programmes to provide accommodation and other support for people seeking asylum arise in the larger context of harmful official attitudes and policies toward migration.
In particular, the UK government’s “hostile environment” policies sought to prevent access to services for anyone unable to prove their immigration status with the stated purpose of making the requirements so difficult that they would induce people to leave the country. As then-Home Secretary Theresa May said in 2012, “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.” Assessing these policies, Dr. Charlotte Sanders, director of the Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, has observed that they “tak[e] aim at the bearability of life” by employing “a racialised logic of worthy and unworthy life which denies many migrants the resources necessary to make secure and comfortable lives in Britain.”
These policies preceded May’s tenure as Home Secretary, although they intensified during her time in that role. In 2007, Liam Byrne, the minister of state for immigration and asylum in the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, announced a crackdown on employment by people without regular immigration status: “We are trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally.” In fact, hostile policies toward people seeking asylum date at least to 1999, when legislation increased the use of detention and the UK government changed the way people seeking asylum received support.
Hostile environment policies were themselves the product of systemic “institutional racism in the Home Office” that was “embedded in nationality and immigration policy and practice.” The wrongful detention and deportation of Black people from the Windrush generation and their children is another notable example of these policies and practices.
More recently, and particularly as irregular Channel crossings dramatically increased beginning in 2018, the UK government has introduced new measures that permit the pushback of boats to France; allow the transfer of people seeking asylum to Rwanda, where they would stay if granted refugee recognition; and eliminate access to asylum for people who arrive irregularly, among other proposals.
The Nationality and Borders Act, enacted in 2022, explicitly authorized some of these measures, including through the introduction of new inadmissibility measures for people who have passed through countries deemed safe, provisions for differential treatment of people recognized as refugees who have entered the UK irregularly, removals to third countries deemed safe, and pushbacks of boats.
The Illegal Migration Act, which became law on July 20, 2023, prevents people who have arrived irregularly and have travelled through a country deemed safe from being able to claim asylum or access modern slavery or trafficking protections—effectively an asylum ban. It provides that people will be detained upon arrival, possibly indefinitely, and then deported either to their home country or a so-called safe country, such as Rwanda. In response to sharp criticism by some Conservative members of the House of Commons, including former prime minister Theresa May, and efforts by the House of Lords to remove the bill’s most draconian measures, the government agreed to minimal changes before the bill became law.
Each of these laws explicitly undermines protections for unaccompanied children. For instance, the Nationality and Borders Act allows the Home Office to require some unaccompanied children to undergo discredited bone tests to determine their age. The Illegal Migration Act gives the Home Office the legal authority to house unaccompanied children, presumably including in hotels, and prevents unaccompanied children who enter the UK irregularly from acquiring immigration status upon reaching age 18.
The government has retreated from some initiatives in the face of litigation and public pressure and as the ineffectiveness of some of its policies became apparent. In April 2022, one week before a court hearing on the boat pushback policy, the Home Office announced that it would not seek to implement it—though the enactment of the Nationality and Borders Act later that month then gave the Home Office an explicit legislative basis to do so. In June 2023, the Home Office announced that it would “pause” application of the differential treatment provision of the Nationality and Borders Act.
But after the court of appeal ruled in June 2023 that the government’s Rwanda plan was unlawful, the government vowed to carry it out and asked the supreme court to overturn the ruling. The government has already notified at least 24,000 people that they were being considered for removal to a “safe third country,” presumably in reference to Rwanda, the only country with which the UK has such an agreement. In August 2023, a Home Office minister suggested that people who arrive in the UK after crossing the Channel irregularly might be sent to Ascension Island, a British territory in the South Atlantic, if the government could not carry out deportations to Rwanda. Several days later, the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, implied that the UK government could withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights to be able to carry out third-country removals to Rwanda.
Amid criticism of its use of hotels as contingency initial accommodation for people seeking asylum, the government has also announced it will use ferries, barges, former military bases (in tents as well as barracks), and former prisons to house people seeking asylum. In July 2023, despite ongoing legal action challenging the plan, the Home Office moved 46 people, all male, to a Royal Air Force base in north Essex, northeast of London, and planned to house up to 1,700 adult men there; the following month, former Home Secretary Priti Patel criticised the UK government for not making public details of how long it expected to use the base as asylum housing and the basis for its claim that the plan would save money compared with other options. The Home Office also prepared an airbase in Lincolnshire and a barge, moored in Dorset, to hold a combined total of up to 4,200 people seeking asylum. Despite the high likelihood that these forms of accommodation will cause serious harm to people seeking asylum, as discussed in Chapter VI, below, the opposition Labour party suggested in August 2023 that it would continue to use barracks and barges as asylum accommodation at least temporarily if it forms a government after the next election.
Although the UK government has repeatedly stated that these arrangements would reduce costs, it has not released a detailed breakdown of expenses for refurbishing and operating these sites as accommodation for people seeking asylum. A study by two nongovernmental organisations has found that the Home Office would save no more than £10 per person by housing people on the Dorset barge, the Bibby Stockholm.
A proposal to house 1,500 people in a third former Royal Air Force base, in Linton-on-Ouse, in northern England northwest of York, stalled following local opposition and the threat of legal action. The contractor selected to run the site was Serco, one of the three companies that have contracted with the Home Office to provide accommodation for people seeking asylum—and which, like the others, has placed people in hotels under its Home Office contracts.
In November 2022, the Home Office repurposed a former care home in Essex as accommodation for disabled people. As of June 2023, the Home Office had placed 55 people in the repurposed institution, which “is staffed like a standard Home Office asylum seeker hotel with security guards and reception staff but does not have trained care workers or nurses there as part of the contract.”
II. Inadequate Housing
‘Initial’ or ‘contingency’ accommodation is often used for long periods of time for asylum-seeking families and children despite being unfit for long-term stays. This accommodation often makes use of bed and breakfasts, barracks, hostels, or hotels that have been quickly repurposed for their new use and often have numerous reported habitability issues. Human Rights Watch and Just Fair visited hotels in Bournemouth, Ilford, Maidenhead, Reading, and Wokingham, viewing rooms in each, and found that people placed in hotel accommodation were facing serious habitability problems that included a lack of space, dampness and mould, furniture and other items missing or in disrepair, and pest infestations, in violation of their right to adequate housing.
Accommodation with dampness, pest infestations, or other habitability issues are not fit for purpose under the Home Office’s published standards. These standards also call for shared rooms to be “appropriately sized for the number of occupants.” People seeking asylum should be able to flag problems with their accommodation by contacting Migrant Help, the organization contracted by the Home Office to provide advice, guidance, and assistance. People who have called the helpline have experienced wait times of up to three hours with calls regularly unanswered, disconnected, or dismissed.
Mears and Serco provided responses to our questions in advance of publication; Clearsprings Ready Homes referred us to the Home Office, which had not replied to our request for comment at the time of publication. In response to our question on accommodation conditions, Mears stated:
Policy on accommodation standards and requirements is determined by the Home Office and specified in the contract. Mears role is an operational one, to ensure that asylum accommodation is safe, habitable and fit for purpose and meets all contractual and regulatory standards. We do this on an ongoing basis through regular inspections of accommodation and the provision of a repairs and maintenance service.
. . . .
Mears carries out regular inspections at accommodation sites and raises issues for attention, including repairs and maintenance. In addition Mears welfare officers are in regular contact with service users and will take up any issues or concerns that are raised. Data is reported to the Home Office on how issues are dealt with and the timelines.
Serco included the following points in its reply:
We note that you have interviewed 50 people who were living in or had recently left hotel accommodation provided under Home Office contracts in towns across England. Given that Serco manages two of the six regions we assume the number of people you have spoken to living in Serco managed accommodation is much lower. The reported experiences of a small number of people will not necessarily be truly reflective of the overall experiences of the many thousands of people we are accommodating. As you will be aware latest UK Government figures show that there are over 45,000 asylum seekers living in hotels across the UK.
. . . .
Clearly with the number of people we are accommodating in hotels, as with any accommodation, from time-to-time there may be problems. These are rectified or repaired in accordance with the timescales set out in the Statement of Requirements. More specifically, across our two contract areas, in the first eight months of this year we only had three issues of mould, six about insects and none about rodents raised through the formal complaint process.
The right to adequate housing is guaranteed under article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the United Kingdom ratified, and so agreed to be legally bound by, in 1976. This right applies to all people in the UK regardless of migration status. Habitability is a key component of the right to adequate housing. Housing must be habitable, with adequate space, and protect inhabitants from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind, and other threats to health, including structural hazards, and from exposure to disease vectors.
Overcrowding and Lack of Adequate Space
Human Rights Watch and Just Fair interviewed several families who said that overcrowding and lack of adequate space were major problems in their hotels. The general lack of space makes life very difficult for children and families, with adverse consequences for privacy, mental health, familial relationships, and day-to-day life.
For instance, Amina F., who arrived in the UK with her husband in August 2022, was initially placed for three months in a hostel in Wakefield, a town in northern England. Describing the accommodation, she said:
The rooms were small. There was no table in our room, and no chairs, only a bed. There was not enough space for the number of people in each room. Seven persons shared one room. Other rooms had three or four people. There were many children, from newborns up to 17 years old.
In another case typical of those we heard, Miguel E., his wife, and three children, aged 4, 7, and 15, who left El Salvador after they were threatened by criminal gangs and sought asylum in the UK, had lived in a hotel in east London’s Tower Hamlets for eight months when we spoke to them in May 2022. The family of five shares one crowded room with three triple-decker bunk beds and one bathroom. Miguel says it is not an adequate space for a family and definitely not an appropriate space for children, telling us, “Here we feel penned in like we are animals.” His seven-year-old son, Luis, said to him, “Papa, this is like a prison.” Bella, his 15-year-old daughter, told us, “I have no space to myself and no privacy from my family. I do all my homework in my room. We eat all our meals on the floor of the room. I am sick of living like this.”
Arman L., a 14-year-old boy from Iran who arrived with his mother, Yezda L., in August 2021, described similar conditions in each of the places the Home Office has assigned them. The two of them have been living in different hotels since then, most recently a hostel in Tower Hamlets, where they shared a small room with one bunk bed in it. The room had barely any floor space and had no room for any other furniture. Arman said, “I feel very claustrophobic, like I am suffocating.” Yezda described the room as tiny and lacking fresh air. With no chairs, they eat all of their meals on their beds. In fact, she said, “We spend our lives on the beds.” The close quarters have also affected her relationship with her son, she told us, adding that they fought a lot when they first arrived due to the lack of privacy. When Human Rights Watch and Just Fair spoke to Yezda again in June 2023, they were living in the same hostel; in all, she and her son had been in hotels used as contingency accommodation for one year and 10 months.
The experience of 15-year-old Jasper N. and his mother was much the same. Fearing religious persecution after they converted to Christianity, they left Iran and arrived in the UK in March 2022. They were sent to a hotel in Hounslow, in west London, where they were initially placed in a small room with two single beds. The room was so filthy they agreed to accept a different room even though it only had one double bed. Jasper told us that he gives his mother the only bed because she has trouble sleeping. He sleeps on the floor on a blanket, where he sees mice running around as he is getting ready for bed. He had done this for a few months when we interviewed him in May 2022. “Sleeping on the floor is not very comfortable, but what else can I do?”, he said.
Many of the people interviewed remarked that the spaces they were placed in might be suitable for a few days at a time or a week at most, but not for many months at a time.
The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights draws on the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ definition of overcrowding as “dwellings with densities of three or more persons per room” and considers occupancy in excess of this limit to contravene the right to adequate housing.  More generally, accommodation that does not offer adequate space or adequate privacy is not adequate housing regardless of the number of occupants per room.
Dampness and Black Mould
Human Rights Watch and Just Fair interviewed families who described dampness and lack of ventilation in their hotel accommodation, which is worse when rooms are overcrowded. These conditions can lead to the growth of toxic mould, mycotoxins, fungi, and bacteria, some of which in turn can cause serious health conditions.
Children are at higher risk of ill-health from mould exposure, including severe allergic reactions as well as respiratory conditions such as asthma onset and exacerbation, coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. Research has found links between indoor mould exposure and adverse respiratory health outcomes in children.
Maria V. has lived in a hotel in Hounslow, in west London, with her two sons, ages 3 and 5, for one year and six months. She has moved between four different rooms in this period. “Every room has had black mould and damp covering the walls,” she told us.
Her eldest son, David, developed a chronic cough after one year of living in the hotel. “He is just coughing all the time, nobody is able to sleep as the cough gets really bad at night, the window only opens a little bit so there is no fresh air,” she said.
In May 2023, David received a preliminary diagnosis of asthma and was awaiting a final diagnosis. Human Rights Watch and Just Fair reviewed a letter written by David’s primary care doctor (known as a general practitioner or GP) that confirmed that the mould in the accommodation contributes to his respiratory symptoms, including his chronic cough and wheezing.
Maria V. complained to the hotel on several occasions about the mould on the walls. Each time, hotel staff painted over the mould, which then returned. A hotel manager eventually told her that eliminating the mould would require more extensive work. Maria told us, “When I saw the mould, I could not believe I was in England. I have accepted this for myself, but what about my children? Why should my two boys have to live like this?”
Blanca R., her husband, and their three children, ages 3, 6, and 14, are from El Salvador. Since arriving in December 2021, the family of five has been living in a hotel room in Ilford, in east London. Black mould grows around a window in the humid, poorly ventilated room, which Blanca regularly cleans, but she says the mould keeps growing back.
Khadija B., her husband, and their five children, ages 3, 5, 10, 15, and 17, came from Iraq to the UK in November 2021. When we spoke to them in May 2022, they had shared two rooms at a hotel in Ilford since their arrival. Khadija says there is mould on the walls in their hotel rooms, which always returns after they use cleaning agents to remove it. She is worried: “It grows next to our youngest son’s bed. We try to open the windows to stop the mould, but the hotel staff tell us we have to close them for safety reasons,” she told us.
Miguel E., living with his family in Tower Hamlets, in east London, says their hotel accommodation has black mould spots on all the walls. The hotel staff paint over this mould but it grows back. He said his 7-year-old son, Luis, who sleeps near the mould, began to suffer from breathing difficulties. The doctor determined it was likely an allergic reaction.
Unsuitability for People with Health Conditions
Human rights are interdependent; violations of the right to adequate housing can often also lead to the violation of the right to health, both mental and physical.
Maria V. is currently living in a hotel in Hounslow, in west London, with her two sons. Her eldest son, 5-year-old David, has autism and high support needs. He is prone to sensory overload and can find loud noises and constant stimuli very upsetting, meaning many elements of the hotel are unsuitable for him.
Because he thrashes around in his sleep, he is at constant risk of falling out of the bed. He requires a special medical bed, which is not available in the hotel, to sleep safely. After Maria complained to Migrant Help, the hotel provided them with an attachable bed guard, which broke immediately.
In another case, Amina F., a 26-year-old woman from Syria, arrived in the UK in August 2022 with her husband on a small boat from Dunkirk. She is seeking asylum in the UK due to the war and instability in her home country. After initially spending three months in a hostel in Wakefield, the couple were moved to a hotel in York, in the northeast of England.
Their accommodation is a self-contained studio with a bed, a table, a bathroom, and kitchenette. However, Amina suffers from health problems that include a blockage in her arteries and breathing difficulties. The windows do not open in her current accommodation. Amina said, “I need fresh air in the room. The room is small . . . . I often feel short of breath. I asked to change my room, but the [hotel] staff refused.”
Amina and her husband are very unhappy in their current accommodation and dream of when they can have their own flat to start a family. She told us, “I feel like my psyche is shattered, so many of my problems come from this and the emptiness in which I live.”
Items in Disrepair or Missing
Many of those interviewed told Human Rights Watch and Just Fair that disrepair was rife in the hotel accommodation, with missing or broken items in many rooms. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has determined that adequate housing must contain facilities essential for health, security, comfort, and nutrition.
Ana L., a 17-year-old girl, left El Salvador and arrived in the UK with her mother, father, and 12-year-old sister in June 2021. They were placed in multiple hotels after their arrival, including one in Hounslow, in west London, between June and October 2021. Ana told Human Rights Watch that this hotel was in a state of considerable disrepair.
“The bed was broken in the middle and so the mattress sagged” to such an extent that sleep was difficult and a night in the bed caused severe back pain, she said. Her parents reported it to the hotel management, but nothing was ever done to fix it. Their temporary solution was to prop the middle of the mattress up with cans from the foodbank.
The room also had a major issue with leaks when it rained. Ana said there were leaks around the windows and in the ceiling over her bed meaning when it rained everything would get wet. The family tried unsuccessfully to catch the water in bowls. When the family reported the leaks to hotel staff, the staff replied that they all have leaks in their homes as well. The leaks were not fixed for the four months they were there.
Khadija B., the woman staying in Ilford, also complained of a broken bed in her family’s hotel room. The bed was damaged when the family arrived, with all the slats in the middle broken. When we interviewed the family, the issue had not been fixed for over six months. The hotel staff refused to replace it and claimed that the family had broken the bed.
Aside from broken items, some people also commented that furniture and appliances had been removed from rooms. For instance, Blanca R. and her family, staying in Ilford, told us that when they were first placed in their hotel in December 2021, their room came with a fridge and a microwave. However, the hotel management removed these appliances from all rooms at the beginning of April 2022, telling people they did so for health and safety reasons. Blanca was doubtful, explaining, “It was when there was lots of news stories about the cost of energy going up, so we think that was the real reason.” Without these appliances, life has been much more difficult for the family. “Now we keep the milk on the windowsill since they took away our fridge. I am not sure what we will do in the summer,” Blanca told us.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has clarified that adequate housing must protect its inhabitants from disease vectors, including infestations of rodents and other pests.
Saleh R., a 17-year-old boy, arrived in the UK with his father in February 2021 after fleeing conflict in Yemen. For their first 40 days in the UK, they were placed in a hotel room in London. Saleh said the building was old and run down. “It had a problem with mice in the corridors. I used to see mice all the time when I walked around. Some of them were really big,” he told us.
Aileen L., who arrived in the UK in June 2021 with her husband and their two daughters, 12 and 17, was living with her family in Hounslow, west London, when we spoke with her in May 2022. The rooms had rats, she said. “We used to see dead ones on traps and live rats running behind pipes. When we or other families told the staff, they said this was not an issue that could be fixed,” she told us.
Victor B., a 14-year-old boy from Lebanon living with his family in Streatham, in south London, said that his hotel houses a lot of families with children. He explained that there is a problem with pests in the hotel and it affects the families around them. “Some families have bedbugs in their rooms, and we see them covered in bites,” he explained.
Amina F., a 26-year-old woman from Syria, said that the hostel in Wakefield where she and her husband spent three months in 2022 had “vermin, cockroaches, insects everywhere. There were pictures in the media, but nothing changed.”
III. Inadequate Provision of Food
As with other accommodation that does not have cooking facilities available to the people staying there, most hotels are required to provide adequate, nutritious food to people seeking asylum. Moreover, people usually do not have access to any kitchen areas that do exist and are prohibited from having cooking appliances in their rooms, although there are some reported exceptions. In addition to general issues with low quality food, there are also issues with insufficient portion sizes and inappropriate food for infants.
Issues with the food are often compounded for children, especially young children who are more likely to be particular about what they eat. Children also have a higher nutritional need than adults due to the increased demands for growth alongside body maintenance and physical activity. Adults who are pregnant or breastfeeding also have more complex nutritional needs than other adults. We heard from multiple families about children’s weight changing as well as feeling hungry at night. Jennifer Laws, campaigns manager for the North East at the charity Asylum Matters, told us, “Food is a constant problem. The types of food aren’t always appropriate for children. It’s particularly hard for families with young children or children who have specific health needs.” The contract for the hotels states that in addition to three main meals, there should also be foods that are appropriate for babies and small children, enabling them to be fed whenever necessary, along with options for “special dietary, cultural or religious requirements.”
Mears and Serco responded to our specific questions on food; Clearsprings Ready Homes referred us to the Home Office, which had not replied to our request for comment at the time of publication. Mears stated:
Policies on food provision are set by the Home Office and Mears role is to operationalise these. At initial accommodation sites, three meals a day are provided to all services users, menus meet NHS Eat Well standards and are nutritionally balanced, and menus are reviewed and changed regularly. Overall service user feedback on food has been good and we take on board any comments and requests. We make special provision for children in menus and provide child friendly snacks and drinks including fruit, fruit pots, yoghurts and milk. All children have a healthcare assessment and any food or dietary considerations are supported, including dietary, medical needs, allergies or food intolerance.
Serco’s response to our request for comment stated, “Serco requires all food providers, whether subcontracted or in-house, to sign up to a ‘contingency catering agreement,’” an extract of which it provided, and added, “All people living in hotels are provided with three meals a day and especially where children are being accommodated, we liaise closely with parents aiming to meet any particular dietary requirements.”
The right to adequate food is guaranteed under article 11 of the ICESCR. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights considers that the core content of the right to adequate food includes “the availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture.” Issues with food are consistently raised by people living in the hotels, often as their primary concern, suggesting that the right to food is not consistently ensured in these settings.
Yassir M., an unaccompanied 17-year-old boy from Sudan, arrived in the UK in September 2021, and has been living in a hotel in Crystal Palace, in south London, since then. One of the main issues he wanted to highlight was the food. He said there is never enough food; at breakfast “usually we are given one egg each and some bread.” In the evening, the “food is usually just rice and maybe some meat. . . . They only give us a small plate, we are not allowed any food after that. I am usually hungry in the night.”
Moussa M., an unaccompanied 17-year-old boy from Guinea, arrived in the UK in December 2020 after fleeing his home country when his house was demolished by the military. He was placed in a hotel in Slough, in the south of England, from May 2021 until February 2022. Moussa said that the food there was a real problem; it was only ever things like plain rice or couscous and was never a big enough portion. He said he was given “one small bowl of food and maybe an apple. I would eat it quickly and then was not allowed anymore.” During his stay there, he saw a doctor after he fainted. The doctor told him he had iron and various vitamin deficiencies and said he needed to improve his diet.
David A., from Sudan, who arrived in the UK at age 17 in February 2021, spent a year in a hotel in Swiss Cottage, in north London, from April 2021. Describing the food, he said, “It was really awful. I could not stand it. Every day we were just given plain rice or pasta. It was food I was not used to, and it just did not taste good. I remember feeling hungry all the time.” At one point, he had to be taken to the hospital because he was not eating enough and was given medication to improve his appetite.
Many of the other people staying in the hotel with David would not eat the food either, he told us. David has since been moved from his hotel accommodation to a shared house where he has access to a kitchen and is able to prepare food for himself. He said this has improved his life because he can now cook food he likes. “I feel so much better and healthier because of this,” he said.
Aileen L., who arrived with her husband and their two daughters, ages 12 and 17, in June 2021, was in a hotel in Hounslow, in west London, when we spoke with her. She said that occasionally the Home Office would conduct visits of the hotel and when this happened, “everything would change overnight. Suddenly there was loads of food, like fruit and vegetables. The staff were suddenly all wearing gloves and there was lots of choice for us. It all went back to normal after the visits were over though.”
The accounts we heard are similar to the findings of a 2022 report on hotels used to house unaccompanied children by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, which observed, “Contractor staff and young people alike complained about the quality, quantity and variety of the food in the hotels” and that the inspection team’s own observations found “limited engagement with the nutritional needs of young people, the cultural aspects of food such as sharing dishes, or the reality of teenagers.”
Healthy Food and Impact on Health
The health and dietary needs of those staying in hotel accommodation are an important consideration. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights considers this a core content of the right to adequate food, stating: “dietary needs implies that the diet as a whole contains a mix of nutrients for physical and mental growth, development and maintenance, and physical activity that are in compliance with human physiological needs at all stages throughout the life cycle.”
Health professionals have reportedly raised concerns about the increasing number of children in hotel accommodation diagnosed with malnutrition, with children dangerously thin and in need of frequent monitoring. Our findings support these claims: multiple parents and children with whom Human Rights Watch and Just Fair spoke indicated that the food provided was often not healthy at all and lacked in the nutrients needed for a balanced diet. In many cases, the food was having an adverse effect on people’s health, including causing illness or changes to children’s weight. Human rights are interdependent, and violations of the right to adequate food can also lead to violations of the right to health, both mental and physical.
Amina F. told us that when she and her husband were in a hotel in Wakefield, she became sick at least five times from the food. “I vomited. I tried asking for different food. My doctor wrote to say that I should not be eating the food they served. The doctor gave a list of recommended foods and finally asked if I could buy them myself. I told the doctor I don’t have the money to do that because I receive only £8 a week.”
Mariam T., a single mother from Georgia with three children, ages 7, 11, and 13, received hotel accommodation in Maidenhead, in southeast England. Mariam says that all three of her children suffer from digestive issues, but this was easy to manage when she had access to her own kitchen and could cook the food her children needed. She said that on multiple occasions she has asked the hotel for different types of food and meals. “We are always told there was nothing they could do about it,” she related. Instead, she has to spend her minimal income on food that she thinks the kids will eat and that they can digest, but this is not always easy. Her 11-year-old daughter, Natela, said that she often feels hungry.
Céline B., from Lebanon, told Human Rights Watch and Just Fair that her 10-year-old daughter lost 7 kilograms in their first three months in the hotel.
In another case, Miguel E., placed with his family in a hotel in Tower Hamlets, east London, told us that the food is an issue mostly for his 4-year-old daughter, Clarissa. He explained, “She loves vegetables! She only eats things that are green at the moment. This is not what we are given at the hotel.” When the family arrived in September 2021, her weight dropped dramatically. “She lost 10 pounds [4.5 kilograms] and only weighed about 60 pounds [27 kilograms] to begin with. I did not know what to do, now we go to two different foodbanks each week to get fruit and vegetables for her.”
Hassan H., a 17-year-old boy, arrived with his father, Ibrahim, his mother, Amal, and his younger brother, Amir, aged 15, from Iraq in October 2021. In December they claimed asylum and were placed in a hotel in Wokingham, southeast England. Ibrahim said the food is often just plain rice and meat, and it is a problem for his two sons, but especially Hassan who has specific dietary needs, and lost weight when they arrived.
Hassan’s doctor wrote a letter to the hotel which Human Rights Watch and Just Fair have seen, detailing his needs and highlighting that he is “suffering from a significant folate and vitamin D deficiency which is causing him to experience fatigue and limb pains . . . . In order to receive adequate dietary supplementation he requires adequate portions of fish, eggs, dairy, pulses and legumes.”
Inappropriate Food for Infants
Groups that work closely with families in hotels told us that families often faced challenges in getting appropriate food for newborns and infants as well as for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. Human Rights Watch and Just Fair heard that both baby formula and milk can be difficult to get on a regular basis in some hotels. Similarly, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration observed that “mothers were frequently told by managers that they could not have baby milk more than once every 10 days . . . and baby bottles were frequently missing.”
Hung M., his wife, and their three children, ages 1, 11, and 17, claimed asylum in March 2021 after fleeing political persecution in Vietnam. The family had been living in hotels in London for over two years when we spoke with them. From April to December 2022, they were in a hotel in Streatham, in south London. The hotel provides special food for newborn babies, such as infant formula. However, their son Huey had just turned one and was beginning to eat solid foods. “The thing we really need is baby food, we need jars of baby food. We tried to complain to the hotel about this but nothing changed. We also tried to go to the local foodbank, but they told us they could not help us because the hotel gives us meals,” Hung said. The family told us they spent their limited income from the Home Office on baby food for their son.
Just Fair spoke with one person living in a hotel in London who had previously worked in her home country of Syria as a nutritionist specializing in food hygiene and infant feeding. She confirmed many of the issues with the food in the asylum hotel system and identified particular concerns for mothers with young children, noting that the lack of appropriate food, hunger, and stress could all have a particular impact on breastfeeding mothers. The nutritionist also said that the type of food typically provided in hotels is often difficult for small children to eat and that because all children, regardless of age, are given the same menu as adults in the hotels, it can be very difficult to wean them on to solid foods.
IV. Barriers in Access to Education
Children in hotel accommodation face specific barriers in access to education. Because they often arrive in school districts partway through the school year, local schools may not allow them to enrol immediately—and in some cases require them to wait until the following year before they can attend classes. When the Home Office transfers families from one hotel to another or assigns them dispersal accommodation, children frequently experience further interruptions in their education. Moreover, hotels may be located far from schools and libraries, may lack reliable internet connectivity, and are in other respects often unsuitable environments for children to study.
Access to education is protected in both international and domestic law. In fact, education is compulsory for children in the United Kingdom from age 5 to 16. In international law, it is included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the European Convention on Human Rights, all of which the United Kingdom has ratified. The right to education is part of UK domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1998. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has confirmed that education must be accessible to all, especially the most vulnerable groups, within a reasonably convenient geographic location, and affordable to all. The duty to fulfil this right falls on both the UK government and local authorities.
Most of the families interviewed for this report placed a high value on education. They referred repeatedly to its immediate benefits of allowing children to interact with peers and develop a sense of routine, and they saw education as an important means of preparing children for a future in a new country. Nearly all said they had done everything they could to ensure that their children could go to school.
A Lack of School Places
Some local authorities coordinate with housing providers to register children as quickly as possible. In other areas, charities and support groups have had to step in. Douglas F., a 15-year-old boy from Mexico, told us he had to wait six weeks before starting school, a delay that he said was very short compared to other asylum-seeking students he had met, thanks to the help he and his parents received from a local group.
But many parents and children described having to locate schools on their own and apply individually at each until they found a place, a daunting process made more difficult by their unfamiliarity with the area and the educational system. “We went to all the schools in the area,” said Blanca R., a 45-year-old woman from El Salvador in east London with her husband and three children, ages 3, 6 and 14. She explained, “Everywhere we went, we heard the same thing: no places. Every school told us they didn’t have a place for the children.” Eventually, Blanca’s children started school in May 2022, four months after she first tried to enrol them.
Musa S., an unaccompanied 17-year-old boy, living in a hotel in Bournemouth, in southern England, told us that in his home country of Afghanistan, he was attending grade ten, including for a month while the country was under the control of the Taliban. He has not been able to enrol in school since March 2022, when he arrived in the UK. He said not being in school was a constant source of stress for him, and he was frustrated at the lack of support to help him enrol:
I have asked Migrant Help many times but they always ignore me. I feel so hopeless and heartbroken about this. Sometimes I go to the college down the road from the hotel and watch the students when they come out. I see some of them are Afghans and they look happy. My only hope and dream is to go back to school.
Aicha B., a 17-year-old girl, who arrived with her mother and other family members in November 2021, had still not been enrolled in college (the term often used in England and Wales for institutions where students complete the final two years of secondary education) when we interviewed her five months later. Aicha had applied for multiple local options but was repeatedly told there was no space. She told us she was very upset about not being able to attend school. “I cry every day when I think about it. . . . I want to go to school so that I can make friends, and to learn English better. I want to fill my head with knowledge,” she said.
In another case, Aydin E., a 14-year-old boy, arrived with his mother and father from Turkey and was placed in a hotel in Maidenhead, in southeast England, in April 2022. When we interviewed the family a month later, Aydin had not been able to enrol in school; none of the schools they contacted had replied to their request to register him, his mother told us. Aydin said, “If I ever get to start school then my life would be a lot better.”
Victor B., a 14-year-old boy from Lebanon living in Streatham, in south London, arrived with his older brother, Pierre, in April 2022; the two were told they had to wait to attend classes until the new school year began in September.
As UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) UK has observed, “For many children and their families, the barriers to accessing education cited were not the admissions policies per se, but rather the systems surrounding them that must be navigated, at times without support, in order to secure a school place.” Older children, particularly those who were close to or above the compulsory school age, seemed to face the longest waits for enrolment, sometimes until the beginning of the following school year.
Delays and disruption are often compounded when families or unaccompanied children move to dispersal accommodation or other housing, which means that children and their parents have to repeat the process of identifying schools with available places. For instance, Nesreen R. said that her 14-year-old son, Tareq, who has autism, has had a difficult time having to wait to attend school each time the Home Office moved the family. “He is very sensitive. This is normal with autism. He was very depressed. . . . He needs to be around other children,” she told us. The moves have also meant that he has not received specialized support at school. “There was no time for that. He had just gotten into school. He was supposed to talk with the psychologist at school, and then we had to move. The school called me a few times to follow up, but by that time we were already in another town. I think the school did their best to try to get him support, but we had to move,” Nesreen said. Since moving to their dispersal accommodation in Newcastle, Tareq has been unable to find a place in a local school, meaning that since he arrived in the UK 11 months ago, Tareq has only been in school for 3 months.
The Home Office allocates dispersal accommodation as it becomes available, without regard to the school timetable and without considering whether it is in a child’s best interests to remain in the same community to avoid disruption to education. Families cannot delay their moves to allow their children to finish the academic year. As a result, some of the families we spoke with turned down the accommodations they were offered, running the risk that the Home Office would consider them ineligible for long-term accommodation.
Amir H., a 15-year-old boy, along with his father, mother, and older brother, claimed asylum in December 2021. They were placed in a hotel in Wokingham, in southeast England. Both of the children found places in local schools; Amir in particular had adjusted very well. He told us he had made a lot of friends and was ready to start his GCSEs. However, without any warning, the Home Office informed them they were being moved to dispersal accommodation in Swansea, Wales, over 240 kilometres (150 miles) away. In response, Amir’s head of year at his school wrote that “moving school or area would be detrimental to [his]progress and well-being. . . . He has developed a network of staff that supports him and he has become far more confident in his own ability.”
Amir’s father said that because of concern for how the move would impact Amir’s education, the family turned down the accommodation and explained to the Home Office that they could not move before the end of the school year. “Why couldn’t they have just checked with us first about our children’s education? Or confirm for us that there will be school places available in Wales? This would have helped so much,” he said. Amir’s mother added that they had to make a decision during the school holidays, without opportunity to let the school know. She said it was only “two months until the end of school. Both boys love their teachers and their friends. We don’t want to destroy this for them.”
The Home Office’s own ‘Allocation of asylum accommodation policy’ guidance for its staff, states that “requests for accommodation in a particular location because the individual’s children are attending school in the area should normally be refused, as arrangements can be made to transfer the children to a school in another area.” The only exception to this policy is if the child is close to important exams, and then only if they have been enrolled at that school for a significant part of the previous school year. There is no requirement for education or school places to be factored into the decision of where the child should be moved, or anything stating the local authority will be made aware of the move, and no explicit requirement to take specific educational needs into account.
Mears’ response to our request for comment included the following statement on assistance with school enrolment:
Education is the responsibility of local authorities in Scotland and Yorkshire, North East and Humber. In Northern Ireland it is the responsibility of Education NI. We have protocols in place with those responsible for education and arranging school places to inform them when a school age child is placed in Mears accommodation. On the question around policy on accommodation allocation and education considerations, this should be directed to the Home Office. While accommodation is offered on a ‘no choice basis’ by the Home Office Mears does seek to accommodate special requests, such as school exams, in our operational arrangements.
Serco’s response included the following statement:
You ask about the enrolment of children in local schools recognising that companies providing asylum accommodation are not required to facilitate school enrolment. Questions in this area probably better addressed to the Department of Education and the Home Office. However, I can confirm that we do notify local authorities where children of school age are to be accommodated in the area. We also have discussion with the Home Office and Local Authority, most notably the education department to agree referral pathways to allow the Local Authority to best exercise their statutory duties and identifying the needs of impending arrivals and the requirements of school age children in an area. Addition, we work with the local authority to set up referral mechanisms into all other key local services including education, health visitor and maternity services.
Clearsprings Ready Homes did not answer our specific questions, including on assistance with access to education. Instead, it referred us to the Home Office, which had not respond to our request for comment at the time of publication.
International standards call for education to be within safe physical reach and at a reasonably convenient geographic location. However, some parents and children said the distance to school presented a challenge, partly because the accommodation used to house people is often in remote locations away from town centres, schools, and communities in general. The distance to school also becomes an issue when a family is moved at short notice and children have to remain in the school they were enrolled in at their previous housing site, regardless of distance.
To mitigate these concerns, some schools issue bus passes to children, though there is no explicit legal requirement to do so. This was the case for every family we interviewed in London as well as in some other parts of England. Bus passes are often essential for children to attend school because families in hotels would struggle to pay for buses out of the low levels of asylum support they receive.
Fadekemi K. said that when she and her children were in Bradford, her children received bus passes so they could go to school. However, not all local authorities do this, and she found that when the Home Office moved her family to Stockton-on-Tees her children’s new schools did not provide bus passes. Her four-year-old’s school is a 30-minute walk from the family’s accommodation, she told us.
In some areas, local groups have been able to provide bicycles to children to allow them to get to school and other places. While welcome, these charitable activities do not replace the crucial role of local authorities in ensuring that all children are able to attend school. It should not be necessary for charities to try to mitigate the failure of the government and local authorities to fulfil the UK’s international human rights legal obligations.
Arman L., a 14-year-old boy from Iran, arrived with his mother Yezda, in August 2021. The two were initially placed in a hotel in Hillingdon, in west London, where he was enrolled in Year 9 at a local school, but then moved to a new hostel in Tower Hamlets, in east London. Arman L. had to commute for three hours each way to get to his school. “I had to get different trains and buses and wake up at 5 a.m. just to get there on time. Migrant Help promised to help me move school, but they didn’t. They also said they would pay us back for the journeys, but they didn’t,” he said. He made this journey for a few months until he was able to transfer to a local school.
In a similar case, Thao M., a 17-year-old girl from Vietnam who had been living in hotels in London for over two years when we spoke to her in July 2022, was having to commute for two to three hours each way by bus for the nine months her family was placed in Streatham, in south London. Thao said the journey took a toll, and she was concerned about her A-level exams. “Six hours a day spent travelling is making me so tired. . . . I get home after the long journey and have no energy or concentration left to study. I just want to sleep,” she told us.
Unsuitable Learning Environments
Substandard accommodation can have a direct impact on children’s ability to learn. Lack of space makes it difficult for children to concentrate or find a quiet environment to do their work, particularly when several children share the same small room. A lack of space can also mean no room for furniture such as a table or a desk—in fact, the Home Office does not require initial accommodation to provide desks or tables in rooms.
Thao told us, “There is no space in the hotel. The room just has one small table which is not big enough to work at,” explaining that the lack of space affected her ability to study. Arman L., living in a small room in a hostel with his mother, said his room had no floor space and no furniture. Without a desk or a table, Arman did his homework at the hostel reception, where there are distractions.
Weak or slow internet at the hotel accommodation can have an adverse effect on children’s education. Effective learning requires access to capable devices and reliable, affordable, and accessible internet. The Red Cross has conducted research on digital exclusion for people seeking asylum and found that the type of accommodation can significantly impact internet availability, reliability, and accessibility. “There is little consistency in the availability and quality of internet connection across accommodation by Home Office providers. While some participants living in Home Office accommodation described having good Wi-Fi access, many said the connection was unreliable,” the Red Cross observed. In such cases, internet access using mobile data is out of reach for people living on asylum support, limiting children’s ability to study and complete assignments.
Victor B., 14, said the internet connectivity in his south London hotel was poor. He explained, “There are too many people using it. In the morning I wake up early just to try and use the Wi-Fi before other people because it does not work in the evening. But sometimes it just doesn't work at all.”
Access to School Uniforms
Families cannot afford to buy school uniforms with the meagre weekly support for people in hotel accommodation. Some schools provide uniforms for students who cannot afford them; in other cases, parents told Human Rights Watch and Just Fair they were expected to buy the uniforms whether or not they could afford to do so.
Education should be economically accessible to all, which extends beyond just the removal of formal fees to also include indirect costs such as school uniforms. Local authorities may, but are not required to, provide school uniforms or financial assistance to defray their cost.
Jane Williams, founder of the Magpie Project, a charity that helps mothers with young children in insecure accommodation in London, said that the cost of school uniforms challenges many families. She described the system to receive support as essentially a lottery, with some schools unable to give uniforms to children for free. Schools’ inability to support children and families in need “leads to things like bullying, as children are forced to wear threadbare clothes, or sizes that don't fit them,” she said.
Aileen L., in a hotel in Hounslow, in west London, with her 12-year-old daughter, said that her daughter’s school provided her with “her uniform, a backpack, a bus pass, and even underwear.” But other parents told us their children’s schools expected them to buy uniforms and school supplies even though the schools knew that they were in initial accommodation for people seeking asylum. For example, Blanca R. told us that only one of her two children, who attended different schools in Ilford, in east London, received a free uniform. She was daunted by the cost of the uniforms her other child’s school expected her to buy. “They sent me a list of what he needs and there is so much on there, it is very expensive,” she told us. When Human Rights Watch and Just Fair reviewed the list, we found that her son’s blazer, tie, a single shirt and pair of trousers, and a single physical education uniform cost more than £50, over a third of the asylum support the family received in a month. That amount does not include the cost of shoes.
Placing Education First
The Home Office and housing providers should work with local authorities as early as possible, ideally starting before families are transferred to initial or dispersal accommodation, to begin the process of identifying school placements for children when they are placed in a new area. Currently, housing providers are under no contractual obligation to do so: there is no provision in the Home Office’s contracts that require initial accommodation providers to ensure access to education for children housed there. Nor does there appear to be any communication between the Home Office and the Department of Education or local education authorities.
The accounts of families interviewed for this report are consistent with the findings of other investigations. For instance, UNICEF found in 2018 that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children faced significant delays of often more than three months to enrol in secondary education. In fact, when the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration inspected hotels used to house unaccompanied children between July 2021 and early 2022, inspectors found that the unaccompanied children housed in these hotels received no education whatsoever.
Local authorities in England and Wales have the “general duty” to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need.” They have a proactive duty to identify children of compulsory school age who are not registered at school. At the international level, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has called on the UK government to ensure that “all asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children have equal and prompt access to education,” among other rights and benefits.
Despite these legal obligations, children are experiencing repeated and significant delays in their education as a result of being moved to different accommodations. The government should reconfigure the asylum accommodation system to put children’s education first. This can be done by ensuring early and transparent communication with local authorities so that school places can be identified, providing parents with all the relevant information needed to register children, and avoiding moving families in the middle of term time unless the parents and children agree that the move will improve the family’s circumstances and otherwise be in the children’s best interests.
V. The Unsuitability of Hotel Accommodation for Children
Children going through the UK’s asylum system, whether unaccompanied or in families, are in need of extra care and protection and require child-specific facilities. However, the asylum system does not adequately take the best interests of the child into account in decisions on accommodation. In particular, initial and contingency accommodation as it is currently used, including for long periods of time, is not suitable for children. During our visits to accommodations, Human Rights Watch and Just Fair rarely saw anything specifically tailored to children’s needs. The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has made similar observations.
The Home Office is required to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, including those in initial accommodation. This obligation includes “fair treatment that meets the same standard a British child would receive,” the child’s best interests taken as a primary consideration in all actions that affect them, no discrimination, timely adjudication of asylum applications, and identification of those children that might be at risk of harm.
Mears included the following statement in response to our request for comment:
Questions regarding the Home Office’s policies on safeguarding should be directed to them. At an operational level, All Mears staff are DBS, BPSS, CTC and SC checked and are trained on areas such as vicarious trauma, de-escalation, safeguarding vulnerable people, cultural awareness training and customer service delivery. Welfare support officers are on site at large accommodation buildings each day to speak to service users and there is a dedicated out of hours welfare service on duty to respond to issues. If any safeguarding concerns are reported to them, or they identify any issues, these are raised to our Safeguarding Lead.
Serco’s response to our request for comment included the following: “The Statement of Requirements is clear that as a AASC provider we must comply with section 55 of the Border, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009. We work closely with the Home Office on robust policies and procedures to ensure the safety of all our residents.” Serco referred Human Rights Watch and Just Fair to the Home Office for further information, including Home Office guidance on compliance with this legal requirement. Clearsprings Ready Homes did not answer our specific questions, including on safeguarding; instead, it referred us to the Home Office, which had not replied to our request for comment at the time of publication.
More generally, the United Kingdom has accepted, through its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the obligation to fulfil children’s right to physical, mental, psychological, social, and other development. Access to education, adequate housing, sufficient and appropriate food, and health services are critical to children’s development, as the Committee on the Rights of the Child has observed. Rest, leisure, play, and recreation are themselves children’s rights and also have a crucial role in children’s social, cognitive, and personal development.
An Unwelcoming Environment for Children
Human Rights Watch and Just Fair frequently heard from charities, support groups, and others that neither the asylum system as a whole nor accommodation for people seeking asylum has been developed with children in mind. Elaine Ortiz, founder and director of the Hummingbird Project, a refugee charity based in Brighton, told us:
The asylum process is incredibly inhumane and re-traumatizing for young people. When a young person discloses the harm that they have been through and are at risk of in their home country, we should believe them. It should be received with the same care as any other young person who may tell us about harm that has been done to them in other contexts. It is an incredibly difficult process to relive these events in order to put forward their asylum claim and for most they will have their accounts rejected as false which can be incredibly damaging to them and their life chances.
She added that in this and other respects, the asylum system “is not only failing children and young people, it is actively harming them.”
In fact, Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick ordered staff in a Kent asylum reception centre to paint over pictures of cartoons and animals to ensure that children did not feel welcome, the Independent reported in July 2023, adding that the Home Office did not deny the report. The Home Office also ordered murals to be painted over at the Manston detention centre, near Ramsgate. Jenrick later justified the decision by saying that murals of cartoon characters were not appropriate for teenagers.
Hotel accommodation is often unsuitable for children in families, as this report has documented in detail. Parents told Human Rights Watch and Just Fair that they worried about the potential long-term effects on their children. As Khadija B. said, “It is very hard to raise kids in a place like this.”
Children deemed to be adults by UK border officers face a particularly unwelcoming and profoundly unsettling environment. The young people in this situation with whom Human Rights Watch and Just Fair spoke described feeling despondent and demoralized that border officials had disregarded their stated ages and in some cases their documents or other evidence they provided. Placed in adult hotels, they were keenly aware that they were not receiving the care and support they needed. Some said they felt unsafe living with unrelated adults.
For instance, Soran K. arrived in November 2021, when he was 16, on a small boat from France after fleeing Iran. He sought out the authorities and gave his age, but the UK border officer he spoke with told him they did not believe him and instead recorded his age as 24. After five days in a processing centre where he shared a room with three adult men, the Home Office moved him to an adults-only hotel in West Bromwich, West Midlands, England. When the authorities initially attempted to transfer him to the hotel, in fact, the taxi driver they had called refused to take him alone because of how young he looked. The Home Office then sent him to an adult hostel in Peterborough, in eastern England, where he was still staying when Just Fair spoke with him again in June 2023, one year and seven months after he made an asylum claim.
Yesal H., who also arrived at the age of 16 in November 2021 on another small boat from France, gave a similar account. His father had worked for the Afghan government, and the two left Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. They were separated in Kabul, and Yesal made the rest of the journey alone. He told us that when he first arrived on the UK shore he fainted. “The police carried me off the boat and just wrote down my age as 25 without asking me. When I woke up there was no translator present so I couldn’t understand what they were saying,” he said.
After 15 days in a processing centre, he spent two months in a hotel in a location he did not know, sharing a room with an adult man, before being transferred to another hotel in Bournemouth where he was staying when we spoke to him in July 2022. He said the main thing he wanted was for people to believe his age. He also wanted to learn English and continue his education. “I want to make a future for myself. In a hotel you cannot make a life,” he told us. He also told us the hotel does not facilitate access to schooling, particularly for somebody whom the Home Office has deemed an adult. “All they provide is food, that is it,” he said.
David A., 17, from Sudan, arrived in February 2021 on a lorry from France. He presented himself to the police, who did not believe his age and recorded him as 18. He was taken to a shared house in Harlow, in southeast England, where he stayed for two months before being moved to a hotel in Swiss Cottage, in north London. He said that being treated as an adult, and as a liar, took a toll on his mental health. “I was constantly worried about why I wasn’t being accepted. I felt so stuck in the hotel with people a lot older than me. I felt so alone there. I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone,” he told us. In May 2023, two weeks after an armed conflict broke out in his home country of Sudan, the Home Office recognized him as a refugee, he told us when we spoke with him a month later.
Inadequate Facilities for Children
All children have the right to play and leisure, which is essential for children’s cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development. Play is crucial for healthy brain development, and it is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact with the world around them, contributing to all aspects of learning. However, hotel accommodation used to house people seeking asylum is often unfit for children to play and enjoy recreational time. This can affect children of any age, from babies and toddlers learning to crawl and use space, to teenagers enjoying recreational activities or exercising.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that “asylum-seeking children face profound challenges in realizing their [right to play] as they often experience both dislocation from their own traditions and culture and exclusion from the culture of the host country.”
Families frequently told Human Rights Watch and Just Fair that they faced a lack of space, the absence of dedicated facilities, and isolation. In one example, in Hounslow, west London, a hotel had no appropriate facilities for children to play until the local council instructed the hotel to provide a playground in response to repeated complaints from the families living there.
Although the opening of the playground in May 2023 was a positive step, the area allocated for the playground was insufficient for the 50 children in the hotel. It is also only open for limited hours, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., which makes it difficult for all families to use. Maria V., who has lived in the hotel with her two sons, ages 3 and 5, for one year and six months, says it is not safe for her children to use. “The playground is new, but it is not safe. It was built right by the main road and it doesn’t have a gate, so my son can easily run away into the road. I can’t let him use it.”
In addition, a volunteer who visits the hotel regularly told us their group tries to provide donated bicycles to children to give them something to do and a way to get exercise. “The staff at the hotel don’t like it and try to stop us from doing this, they say there is nowhere to store these things and they may lead to arguments,” the volunteer said.
Mariam T. had been placed in a hotel in Maidenhead, in southeast England, with her three children, ages 7, 11, and 13. She told us, “Living in one room with three children is very hard. . . . Any kind of activity in the hotel would be good to be honest. . . . There is nothing for children to play or engage with here.”
Yusuf E., his wife Elif, and their 14-year-old son Aydin were in the same hotel, where they had been staying for a month when we spoke with them in May 2022. Yusuf told us, “It would be better if there was something for kids to do in the hotel. There is absolutely nothing here to keep kids busy. It’s been awful and so exhausting. We usually go for an hour-long walk just to try and breathe some different air.”
Amir H., a 15-year-old boy from Iraq, was placed in a hotel in Wokingham, in southeast England, with his family after they arrived in the UK in December 2021. When asked about what he did in the hotel, he replied, “I am sad always. In Iraq I used to be out and about and always busy, now I am stuck in one place and it feels like forever. It is so difficult in the hotel.”
Lack of Safety
The physical safety of the families living in hotel accommodation should be guaranteed as part of the basic duty of care owed by the UK government, with extra protection and consideration afforded when hotels are housing children. This ranges from any internal threats to safety in the hotel, particularly with large numbers of people being housed together, as well as any external threats including racially motivated or otherwise discriminatory attacks or demonstrations targeting the hotels.
Several women told Human Rights Watch and Just Fair that they did not feel safe in their hotel accommodation, particularly in larger hotels or those that housed single men as well as families. For instance, Céline B., from Lebanon, said she faced sexual harassment from a man housed in the same hotel in London. Although the man stopped harassing her after she reported his behaviour to hotel staff, she told us she was shaken by the incident and remained concerned for her safety and that of her 10-year-old daughter. Other women also expressed fears for their own or their children’s safety, particularly for girls. Such accounts are consistent with Human Rights Watch’s interviews with women in temporary hotel accommodation after emergency evacuations from Afghanistan and with other reports that women and children have faced sexual abuse and harassment in hotel accommodation.
Some people specifically mentioned that demonstrators had targeted the hotels where they were staying. For instance, Victor B., a 14-year-old boy from Lebanon living in Streatham, in south London, said that his hotel had been targeted by individuals who had turned up to harass the residents, showing us a YouTube video of one such incident.
Such racially motivated attacks have increased in the last several years. Far-right activists visited accommodation housing migrants and people seeking asylum at least 253 times in 2022, a 102 percent increase from 2021, according to the advocacy group Hope Not Hate. Incidents range from individuals and small groups harassing staff, security, and occupants to more organized, large-scale demonstrations. Some have been life-threatening: in one case that police linked to anti-migrant hatred, a man attempted to firebomb an immigration centre in Dover in October 2022.
These demonstrations and protests by far-right racist groups have been linked to a dehumanizing narrative that people seeking asylum are undeserving of protection and support. Home Secretary Suella Braverman and other government ministers have propelled a narrative that fuels hate and fear, and comments by some members of Parliament have reinforced such views. For instance, Lee Anderson, Member of Parliament for Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, has said he has sympathy with people protesting outside hotels providing refuge for asylum seekers.
In another development that has raised questions about the safety of hotels, more than 400 unaccompanied children have gone missing from Home Office-run hotels since July 2021. ECPAT UK suspects these children have been trafficked or kidnapped or have run away. As of June 2023, of those who have disappeared, 154 are still missing despite efforts to locate them. The others have been found by local police forces, either with people known to the children, or at risk of exploitation by criminal gangs. Three UN special rapporteurs wrote to the UK government in April 2023 to raise concern about reports that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who had gone missing were at risk of being trafficked, calling for an end to the practice of placing unaccompanied children in hotels.
The UK asylum system and the hotels it now relies on for initial accommodation are not suitable for the needs of children. These shortcomings can be mitigated to some extent, improving people’s experiences and lives and allowing them to enjoy their human rights more effectively while they are at hotels—bearing in mind that such practices, however positive, will not change the reality that hotels are not suitable long-term accommodation for families.
Local authorities can play a crucial role. For example, Human Rights Watch and Just Fair spoke to a council worker who told us they have had relative success with the people placed in their area through local initiatives set up to assist asylum seeking children with issues such as mental health. They also seek to “prioritize working very closely with neighbouring local authorities. The communication across councils means that if people are moved, everyone is aware.” This is vital for ensuring nobody is missed when a family is relocated and allows for quicker establishment of support.
Just Fair also spoke with Newham Council, in east London. Newham’s Under 5 Task and Finish Group, established in October 2022, works in partnership to generate and deliver actions that meet the acute needs of pregnant women, new mothers, and children under 5 years of age living in Home Office contingency hotels. One of the main challenges the group initially identified was that families are not always connected to existing support services across the system, and frontline staff do not always know what services are available or how to make referrals.
To strengthen access to support services, the group developed a suite of referral pathways to statutory and voluntary services, including the Acorn Maternity Team (for vulnerable women), health visitors, children’s centres, Newham’s Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub, Newham Nurture, The Magpie Project, and Sister Circle. The referral pathways include anonymous case studies, assisting frontline staff by bringing real-life examples of how services can support pregnant women, new mothers, and children under 5.
Members of the group stress tested partners’ referral pathways to evaluate how they work in practice and identify areas for improvement. Developing the referral pathways has strengthened collaboration across the system and helped ensure more inclusive and equitable access to services, improving access to health, clothing, food, and education, the council told Just Fair, adding that the referral pathways illuminated gaps in support across the system, helping inform the Under 5 Task and Finish Group’s next steps and areas of focus.
VI. Income and Restrictions on the Right to Work
The Home Office provides financial support to people in the asylum system. Effectively banned from working, people placed in temporary hotel accommodation rely on this income to provide the essentials of life, prevent destitution, and support their children. Once a family is moved to dispersal accommodation, they receive an increased payment to compensate the fact that they are no longer provided with meals.
The right to social security is protected in international law, obligating the government to take steps to secure social protection. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has stated that any benefits must be adequate in amount and duration so that everyone may realize an adequate standard of living. It also calls on states to pay “full respect to the principle of human dignity . . . and the principle of non-discrimination.”
In September 2023, the amount of money provided to someone living in “full board” accommodation, including most initial or contingency hotel accommodation, was £9.58 per person per week—or £1.37 a day. This amount is intended to cover essential living items such as clothing, medicine, mobile phone credit, and travel. People in accommodation where they can prepare their own meals, including most dispersal accommodation, received £47.39 per person in the household per week. These amounts were lower in prior years. These payments are loaded on a debit card, known as an Asylum Support Enablement (ASPEN) card. The Home Office has the facility to monitor individuals’ spending on the card, a significant interference with the right to privacy.
This level of support leaves people seeking asylum often living below the poverty line, in violation of their rights to an adequate standard of living and to social security. It also has a negative impact on their health and well-being and can be particularly damaging to children.
Changing Levels of Financial Support
In 2000, the rates for asylum support were set at 70 percent of benefits under Income Support, a financial assistance program for people with low incomes, and subsequent increases remained broadly in line with this ratio for most of the following decade. (Income Support and other “mainstream benefits” are now provided as part of Universal Credit, a program introduced in 2012.) In 2008, the Home Office delinked asylum support from mainstream benefits and instead set them to increase based on the Consumer Price Index rate of inflation. This decision has enabled successive governments to keep asylum support at much lower levels than those of mainstream benefits.
Since 2008, the rates for people living in initial or contingency accommodation have increased marginally, usually following legal challenges. In October 2020, ruling that the UK government was failing to provide adequate asylum support, a high court judge ordered the Home Office to increase the weekly cash amount from £5 to £8 a week.
In 2021, the UK government conducted its own review of the amount of money people seeking asylum are paid and decided to increase the amount “in order to reflect changes in the costs of living since 2020.” The amount was raised by £0.24 a week.
Internal Home Office guidance to UK government ministers in 2022 reportedly advised that the rate of payment was no longer sufficient to meet basic needs because of the cost-of-living crisis. A December 2022 High Court judgment found that the Home Secretary breached her statutory duties by failing to review and increase the level of support. The High Court ordered a 10 percent increase in payments, raising the amount to £9.10 per person per week. Nonetheless, these modest increases have not kept pace with increases in the cost of living: between 2008 and 2022, the real value of asylum support fell by 27 percent, Refugee Action found.
Economic Needs of Children
The Home Office also provides additional payments to families with young children. People who are pregnant and each child aged 1 to 3 receives an extra £3 per week, and each child under the age of 1 receives an extra £5 per week. People who are pregnant are also eligible for a one-time £300 maternity payment. The additional weekly payments “are intended to allow supported asylum seekers to purchase healthy food such as fruit and vegetables,” according to Home Office guidance. In July 2023, the high court found that the Home Office had unlawfully withheld these payments from families under the flawed premise that its duty was satisfied because its contracts for asylum support call for initial accommodation to make a variety of food available.
The Home Office maintains that “the needs of children are not identical to adults, but detailed assessments since 2015 have shown the costs of meeting those needs tend, if anything, to be lower than the costs of meeting the needs of an adult. The flat-payment system therefore results in all family groups, regardless of their size or composition, receiving sufficient funds to cover their essential living needs.”
The Home Office’s analysis disregards the specific economic needs of children, who for example regularly outgrow clothing and face costs associated with school such as supplies and uniforms. A 2020 survey by Asylum Matters noted that “[f]amilies talked about saving throughout the year” to be able to afford school uniforms for their children, observing that “sometimes even this was not enough.” In fact, of the 108 people surveyed for the Asylum Matters report who were seeking asylum together with their children, nearly three out of four said they were not able to buy school uniforms for their children.
Inadequate Financial Support
Nearly everybody interviewed by Human Rights Watch and Just Fair said asylum support was inadequate to cover the basics, particularly the cost of essential travel and clothing.
Local bus fare is out of reach for many people receiving asylum support, we regularly heard. As an example, David A., an unaccompanied boy from Sudan living in Swiss Cottage, in north London, said that he and other young people in the hotels wanted to learn English but they did not have enough money for the bus to get to a language centre. “We would end up walking for hours, trying to find a language centre that had space to let us take classes.” Similarly, when Khadija B. and her family were placed in a hotel in Ilford, east London, she quickly found that most of the family’s weekly support went to bus fare. “We get £8 per person per week but we spend £23 a week on buses for the kids to get to school. The money doesn’t go very far after this,” she said.
Clothing was also a major concern. Adequate clothing is a key component of the right to an adequate standard of living. Musa S., an unaccompanied 17-year-old boy from Afghanistan staying in a hotel in Bournemouth, told us he went two months wearing the same clothes. To be able to afford a change of clothes, he described the strict budget he holds himself to, saying that he did not spend his money on food, and public transport was out of the question. Leila N., who lived in a hotel in Hounslow, in west London, with her 15-year-old son, said that with just a little more money, “I would buy good shoes for my son. His feet are growing all the time and his shoes don’t fit.”
People living in hotel accommodation often need to rely on charitable donations. Efforts by charities to meet people’s basic needs are laudable, but the UK government and local authorities should not rely on volunteers to meet the state’s obligations.
The Rising Cost of Living
Since late 2021, the UK has been experiencing a drop in ‘real’ disposable incomes (adjusted for inflation and after taxes and benefits), leading to the biggest fall in living standards on record.
The cost-of-living crisis is having a disproportionate impact on certain groups in society, in particular on children and adults seeking asylum. Levels of asylum support are set significantly below mainstream benefits and have not kept pace with the increasing cost of living, meaning life has become progressively more difficult, with many living below the poverty line, in violation of their right to an adequate standard of living.
Victor B., a 14-year-old boy from Lebanon living in Streatham, in south London, said, “The money comes on Monday and is finished by Thursday. My little sister wants things because she is only 9, but we cannot afford them, especially now.” Fadekemi K., a Nigerian woman living in a hotel in Bradford with her three sons, said, “The money is not enough. When the boys need haircuts, that’s £10 per child. They will need clothes from time to time. Boxers. Shoes. The money is not enough for that.” She added, “Food is very expensive. It is getting more expensive,” telling us that prices had increased markedly since the end of 2022. In March 2023, UK food price inflation was among the highest across G7 economies, up 19 percent from the previous year.
A volunteer at a drop-in session run from a church in South Shields, in northeast England, which offers people seeking asylum support and donated clothes and toys, said, “Some weeks we get 40 people turning up. Some weeks it’s 90. . . . We’re just not able to provide the services we used to. The numbers of families coming to us in need has gone up so much that it’s become really difficult. Especially for specific things they might need such as pushchairs and prams [types of strollers]. . . finding one of those second hand is very tough these days.”
The Case for Increased Support
The rates of support that people seeking asylum receive are woefully inadequate and often leave families living below the poverty line. The situation has deteriorated since 2008, when the rates for asylum support were delinked from mainstream benefits.
Moreover, mainstream benefits are also insufficient at current levels. For example, Universal Credit’s standard allowance for a single adult over 25 is £85 a week. In addition to this, there is a housing element as well as extra money given for children.
However, there has been a clear rise in the number of households who are not only unable to reach a decent standard of living but are also going without essentials and are forced into debt to cover household bills or are at risk of eviction. The are clear links between the introduction of Universal Credit into the welfare system and a marked increase in food poverty among low income families who receive such support.
Increases to the levels of payment made by the Universal Credit system (and legacy benefits) are urgently needed to allow people to enjoy an adequate standard of living. The Essentials Guarantee campaign, coordinated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a leading UK anti-poverty organization, and the Trussell Trust, the country’s largest food bank network, is a landmark effort to ensure the country’s social security system can deliver on rights. Human Rights Watch supports the campaign’s call for a clearer, more independently determined, and adequate minimum level of social security support through legislation.
Based on the Universal Credit standard allowance payment of £85 a week, a person on asylum support receives 55 percent of this mainstream benefit. Universal Credit rates should be raised to take into account the cost of living, and asylum support payments should be pegged at 70 percent of the new rate.
The Home Office maintains the position that mainstream social security benefits are not set according to the “essential living needs” test and cover a broader range of costs than asylum support does. For this reason, the Home Office “do[es] not consider that aligning asylum support allowances with the levels of universal credit or other mainstream benefits is appropriate.”
The Right to Work
International law guarantees the right of adults to work and the right to just and favourable conditions of work. The current UK asylum system does not fulfil these rights for people who have arrived to seek asylum, who are only able to apply for the right to work after having waited for a decision on their asylum claim for over a year—and then only if the delay was not caused by them. Until 2002, people seeking asylum could apply for permission to work after six months.
Even then, permission is not easily granted, and employment is restricted to the narrow list of highly skilled professions included on the ‘Government’s Shortage Occupations List.’ The 2023 list, for example, includes classically trained ballet dancers, engineering geologists, and chemical scientists working in the nuclear industry. In February 2022, the UK government added social care workers, care assistants, and home care workers to the list to ease staff shortages in this sector. The Home Office does not make data available on the number of people seeking asylum who are granted permission to work.
These restrictions mean that most people in the asylum system are effectively banned from working and are dependent on state support and charitable donations to avoid destitution.
Impact on Children
Because of the failure of the UK Government to guarantee an adequate standard of living through the social security system, the ability of adults to work and earn a living is vital for many families, particularly those with children. While working in the UK does not guarantee an adequate standard of living, the increased costs associated with having children—including for their food, clothing, and education—mean that many parents who are seeking asylum are desperate to exercise their right to work.
The UK Home Office’s policy guidance on work, originally published in 2010, stated that it is “very unlikely that a decision to refuse permission to work for an adult would adversely impact on a child.” An October 2021 High Court judgment found that this guidance was inaccurate and misleading and could result in decisions being made which are not in the best interests of the child, in violation of the Home Secretary’s duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Updated guidance from the Home Office states that “a decision to refuse permission to work . . . for an adult could adversely impact on a child; however, the child’s interests are not necessarily determinative and can be outweighed by public interest considerations.”
Lives of Dignity
The majority of people with whom Human Rights Watch and Just Fair spoke expressed a strong desire to be able to work. Often the journey from a person’s home country to the UK can take significant amounts of time, and people are keen to begin rebuilding their lives once they have reached safety. For many, working is essential for integration into new communities and to enable families to provide for themselves and live a life of dignity. Most people interviewed also specifically mentioned the importance they placed on providing for their children.
Nesreen R., who came to the UK in October 2022 with her husband and their four children, was studying biology and chemistry in her home country of Libya until she stopped out of fear for her safety. She would like to become a pharmacist if she had the opportunity to continue her education and be given the right to work. Yezda, who arrived with her 14-year-old son in August 2021, said that if she was able to, she would study to become a nurse. She explained, “I want to be able to give back and to help others like I have been helped.
Miguel E., who arrived with his wife and three children from El Salvador in September 2021, suggested that even a temporary permit to work would help, “so that we are able to provide for ourselves. When you get something for free, you don’t value it as much. I want to pay my own way and earn a living for myself and my family.” Hung M., who was living with his family in a hotel in Streatham, south London, was a civil engineer in his home country of Vietnam, with specific expertise in sustainable buildings. He would like to contribute his expertise to similar projects in the UK.
Lift the Ban
Over the past 20 years, successive UK governments have made alterations to the system which have increasingly restricted the right to work for people seeking asylum. The minimum 12-month waiting period makes the UK an international outlier: for example, people seeking asylum in Canada can apply for a work permit immediately; in the United States, the wait time to apply is five months; and in the European Union, the maximum wait time is nine months, with some member states allowing work after six months.
The UK is currently the only European country that enforces a minimum 12-month waiting period. Many other countries, moreover, do not place restrictions on the type of employment somebody can take up, making the UK an international outlier.
Until 2002, people seeking asylum could apply for authorization to work if they had been waiting for over six months for a decision on their claim. In July 2002, this provision was withdrawn, and in February 2005 the UK government introduced a new immigration rule increasing the waiting period to 12 months. In 2010, a further restriction was put in place with the introduction of the Government’s Shortage Occupations List.
The right to work, including the right of every adult to the opportunity to gain a living by work which they freely choose, and the right to just and favourable conditions at work, without discrimination, are human rights. Human Rights Watch and Just Fair are members of the Lift the Ban Coalition, calling on the UK government to end the violation of people’s right to work and allow people seeking asylum to enter employment.
VII. The Wrong Approach
UK government officials and members of Parliament have increasingly presented military bases and barges as an alternative to the use of hotels as contingency accommodation for people seeking asylum. Such initiatives will not address the serious issues identified in this report. Instead, such sites combine the worst features of hotel accommodation with other features that are likely to compound harm and lead to further human rights violations.
Even more so than hotels, military bases and barges are large-scale institutional settings that are crowded and offer little privacy and opportunity for rest and recuperation. As the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention observed, they “replicate many of the features found in detained settings.” In addition, the UK’s experience to date of using military bases as contingency asylum accommodation has raised many of the same concerns that government inspectors and others have identified at the Manston immigration detention centre, including overcrowding, outbreaks of diphtheria and other contagious diseases, inadequate screening for vulnerability, excessive stays, and unsuitability for children.
The UK did not accommodate people seeking asylum in camp or similar large-congregate settings until September 2020, when it used emergency planning powers to repurpose Napier Barracks, outside Folkstone in Kent, and Penally Training Camp, near Tenby in Wales, as contingency accommodation, contracting with Clearsprings Ready Homes to manage these facilities. The Home Office used Penally Camp in this way until March 2021; it continued to place people seeking asylum at Napier at least through early September 2023.
At the start, poor planning by the Home Office increased pressures on staff and the likelihood that people seeking asylum would have negative and harmful experiences. The Home Office gave contractors about two weeks to make each site operational. The staff hired by contractors had backgrounds such as retail, hotel, and nightclub security and were “ill-equipped to deal with the complex issues they faced”—particularly safeguarding and trauma. Inadequate oversight by the Home Office and multiple subcontracting arrangements created further complications. “There were fundamental failures of leadership and planning by the Home Office, which had led to dangerous shortcomings in the nature of the accommodation,” the Chief Inspector of Prisons found.
In one critical failure in planning and coordination, the Home Office did not consult local authorities, service providers, and nongovernmental organisations who play a critical role in delivery of health care and other support prior to selecting the sites and placing people in them.
The Home Office also gave virtually no notice or other information to people about their moves in and out of Napier and Penally. Some people described being given as little as 10 to 15 minutes to pack before a bewildering and disorienting journey at night to Penally, while some people in Napier said they were given only a few hours’ notice of their transfer to the camp and in some cases as little as an hour’s notice before their departure from the camp.
Health assessments prior to relocation to these camps were “wholly inadequate.” Screening for trafficking and other serious human rights violations was also inadequate, despite the high risk that many of the people transferred to Napier had been trafficked before reaching the UK. The outsourcing of these and other functions exacerbated the problems people experienced in these camp settings.
As with many hotels, most accommodation in the camps was dilapidated. The UK Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS UK) reported that it was difficult to maintain hygiene in the close quarters at Napier and that its staff did not respond immediately to a severe outbreak of bedbugs in mid-2022. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention heard reports of outbreaks of scabies in 2020 and 2021, during which some people had to share tubes of the medication used for treatment because the camp did not have enough in stock.
The dormitory-style arrangements and the number of people meant little privacy or opportunity for rest: “Residents said that it was difficult to relax and rest, or even to speak on the phone because of the noise when the billets [barracks] were full,” the Chief Inspector of Prisons reported.
Inspections of Napier and Penally found that the camps offered few activities, meaning that people had little to fill their days. Penally Camp was far from the nearest town, meaning that people placed there felt particularly isolated and faced difficulties in access to services of all kinds. People at both camps told the Chief Inspector of Prisons they had been shouted at by protesters, and some also reported that being housed with large numbers of others in close quarters left them feeling unsafe.
Access to legal advice and assistance in Napier was limited for people who did not already have a solicitor prior to their transfer. As JRS UK notes, “This sits in the context of a wider crisis in asylum legal advice, but is made much worse by the fact that hundreds of people seeking asylum have been ghettoised in a relatively remote location.” Moreover, JRS UK observed that “it became progressively more difficult to refer people to solicitors” over time.
Lack of information about how long people would stay at these camps was “a major cause of distress.” By March 2022, the Home Office had, in theory, set a maximum duration of stay of 90 days at Napier, but it could not provide the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration with data on the number of days each person had spent at Napier before transfer, raising questions about how the Home Office ensured compliance with the 90-day limit. Even if the Home Office was generally adhering to the time limit, it provided people with no formal notice of moves, and the information they received from camp staff was haphazard and followed no consistent process.
Staff at the camps did not provide information to help people prepare for life upon their transfer to other accommodation. As in hotel accommodation, this critical function was filled by nongovernmental groups.
In combination, having little to do to fill their time, the lack of privacy, a widespread sense that people lacked control over their lives, and limited information about where they would be sent, what would happen with their asylum applications, and when they would find out had “a corrosive effect on residents’ morale and mental health,” inspectors found.
Survivors of torture, trafficking, and other serious violence described the highly securitized setting as traumatizing, and JRS UK found “clear, systemic failures to screen for vulnerability” prior to transfer as well as at Napier itself.
Many people at both sites described being depressed and hopeless as a result of their circumstances. JRS UK recounted the observations of its detention outreach team, which began to offer support at Napier in October 2020:
Repeatedly, they witnessed a deterioration in mental health over the time that people were at Napier, closely mirroring what they saw in detention. People who were at first cheerful, outgoing, and able to engage with the world withdrew and became depressed and anxious.
In fact, about a third of those the Chief Inspector of Prisons spoke with said they had felt suicidal. Moreover, Napier had particularly inadequate support for people who had engaged in self-harm: “People at high risk of self-harm were located in a decrepit building that was described as the ‘isolation block’; we considered it unfit for habitation,” the Chief Inspector of Prisons found.
The impact on mental well-being was compounded by the Home Office’s lack of planning or preparation to address foreseeable mental health needs. As one example, JRS UK reported, “There is no mental health support onsite at Napier, nor is there any other way of accessing it whilst there . . . .” The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention found, in fact, that “[t]he Home Office’s approach relied on residents themselves being aware of the suitability criteria and drawing the attention of on-site staff to their vulnerability.” More generally, the Chief Inspector of Prisons found that the Home Office was “slow to recognise the impact on residents of prolonged stays in accommodation that was not designed or intended for long-term residence.”
Although the Home Office said that only adult men would be housed in these camps, the Chief Inspector of Prisons found that young people who had given their ages as under 18 were placed, pending an age assessment, in the same decrepit isolation block as people who had engaged in self-harm. Some youths were in the isolation block for two weeks. An age assessment later found that one of these youths was under 18, as he had stated. In another case, the Home Office never reviewed its initial determination that a youth was an adult even though his home country told the Home Office he was under 18. In addition to the cases identified by the Chief Inspector of Prisons between November 2020 and March 2021, Home Office data indicated that five “age dispute cases” resulted in transfers from Napier to other accommodation between June 2021 and February 2022, and JRS UK, the Humans for Rights Network, and other groups documented other young people placed in Napier who were not transferred out.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the Home Office does not appear to have taken stock of the shortcomings of its approach at Napier, even as it moves to repurpose barges and other military bases as large-scale accommodation for people seeking asylum. As the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration observed in early 2022:
I would like to be able to observe a lessons learned process which captures the progress over the past year and uses it to inform core planning for future work. I am not sure that I can. I continue to search for something as basic as a template that covers the mechanics of standing up future sites, and a checklist that captures the conclusions from the journey that Napier has been on over the past year. I hope that there is one.
As with hotels used as contingency accommodation for people seeking asylum, the experience of using repurposed barracks has demonstrated that they do not meet basic standards of habitability and dignity, in violation of the rights to housing, health, and an adequate standard of living.
Barges raise specific safety concerns. When Dutch authorities used the Bibby Stockholm as asylum accommodation in the early 2000s, fire safety and other abusive conditions compelled them to take it out of service. After the Home Office had it moored in Dorset and announced that it would hold up to 550 people, the Fire Brigades Union warned that the potential for overcrowding raised such significant safety concerns that firefighters considered the barge “a potential deathtrap.”
Housing large numbers in close quarters also increases the likelihood of outbreaks of disease, as in Napier and Manston as well as on board a decommissioned cruise ship used in the Netherlands as asylum accommodation.
Moreover, barracks and barges offer even less privacy and opportunity to reestablish a sense of safety and equilibrium, and their large scale and securitized settings increase the risk of traumatizing people who have faced torture, trafficking, and other serious human rights abuses, leading to further deterioration of their mental health. Even when these sites are relatively close to population centres, they increase already formidable obstacles in obtaining adequate legal advice and support, raising due process concerns and interfering with the right to seek asylum.
As the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention has concluded, large-scale institutional settings such as repurposed barracks and barges “jeopardise the mental health and wider well-being of the people seeking asylum accommodated there, and make them fundamentally unsuitable for use as asylum accommodation.” Far from being a safe and humane alternative to the use of hotels as contingency accommodation, they are a significant step in the wrong direction and will only lead to more serious human rights harms.
VIII. Toward a Human Rights-Based Asylum System
The current UK asylum system is not fit for purpose, and the new proposed changes and legislation risk causing further suffering and violations of people’s rights. The UK government should instead reform the asylum system so that it is based on human rights, including by ensuring the best interests of the child are a primary consideration in all decision making.
Notwithstanding everyone's right to seek asylum regardless of how they arrived in the UK, the UK should work to make more safe routes to protection available, such as humanitarian visas, expanded resettlement schemes, and pathways for family reunification. In keeping with the UK’s international commitments, everyone arriving in the UK and claiming asylum should be given a fair hearing, regardless of their manner of entry. People should be welcomed, and authorities should ensure that their rights are fulfilled, including by providing food, water, clothing, and shelter. The specific needs of children should also be met.
Following initial processing, people should receive permanent accommodation as soon as possible. Unaccompanied children should never be placed in hotel accommodation for any length of time. The placement of families with children in hotels should also be avoided; if such placements are strictly necessary, they should be for the shortest possible duration, with the 19-day target for moving families to dispersal accommodation rigorously applied. All accommodation should be free of hazards, protect against threats to health, and otherwise guarantee safety, including by affording protection from discrimination, afford adequate space and privacy, provide access to adequate services, and be of good quality, in line with international standards of habitability. Accommodation should be in communities that are prepared and willing to assist with integration and to ensure access to necessary local services such as health care and education.
The Home Office can do much more to ensure communication and transparency with local authorities, including by working to eliminate commonly reported practices in which people are placed in hotels with very short notice or without any prior warning at all. Precipitous, uncoordinated transfers add to the disruption in people’s lives by impeding local authorities’ opportunity for planning. In particular, access to schools and other services for children are seriously adversely affected by the Home Office’s way of working.
A redesigned asylum system would prioritise people’s agency and facilitate their integration into wider UK society. Until 1999, the UK allowed people seeking asylum to choose where they lived and until 2002 gave them the opportunity to work to support themselves, with cash assistance as necessary to enable them to meet their needs.
Focusing on the long-term inclusion of families and children seeking asylum can be transformative, not only for the individuals seeking to rebuild their lives but also for society and the communities that welcome them. For this to be successful, it is important for integration support to be provided from an early stage. Such support includes immediate access to education and health care, language learning, cultural orientation, social activities in the communities where people receive dispersal accommodation, and employment training, the positive impacts of which have been well documented.
The UK can find solutions to many of its current problems by looking at its own recent history. The system should support people in ways that allow them to regain a sense of safety and stability, exercise control over their destinies, and live their lives in dignity. It is important that children grow up in a safe environment, and that their education, health, and best interests are prioritized. Meeting these essential conditions should be the starting point of a new human rights-based asylum system.
To the Home Office
- Abandon plans to place people seeking asylum on barges, in military barracks, or similar large-scale, institutionalized settings, in recognition of the known risk of harm of such settings in the UK.
- End the use of hotel accommodation for unaccompanied children. Instead, all unaccompanied children should be in the care of child protection authorities in settings that safeguard their welfare and are consistent with children’s best interests.
- Rigorously apply the 19-day target for moving families with children to dispersal accommodation, in recognition of the reality, as demonstrated in this report, that contingency hotel accommodation is not suitable housing for children in families beyond very short-term stays.
- Raise the rate of asylum support to at least 70 percent of mainstream benefits (the previous Home Office formula) to ensure that people are able to afford all of the essentials needed for an adequate standard of living and a life of dignity.
- Lift the ban on work by people seeking asylum and instead allow them to seek employment as soon as they enter the asylum system. As an initial step, remove restrictions in the UK government’s Shortage Occupations List so that people seeking asylum are able to take up employment in any role offered to them after the initial waiting period.
- Allow people seeking asylum to find their own accommodation in the place of their choosing, if they wish to do so, and provide them with support at a level sufficient to give them the opportunity to do so.
- Support families to register their children with local schools to prevent delays to education.
- Ensure that people are provided with sufficient, culturally appropriate, and nutritious food that meets specific dietary needs as required.
- Allow families access to their own cooking facilities whenever possible so that they are able to prepare food that is sufficient and appropriate for themselves and their children.
- Amend contracts with accommodation providers to require them to support people to find and register with general practitioners (GPs, or primary care doctors).
- Ensure free, equitable access to quality internet is included in the requirements for asylum accommodation, including through Wi-Fi installations, data voucher plans, and zero-rating educational websites.
- Improve information sharing and provide sufficient prior notification to local authorities, accommodation providers, and the voluntary sector so that people are able to access the support that they require and to which they are entitled.
- Establish oversight, reporting, and complaint mechanisms for services provided to people seeking asylum by or under the authority of the Home Office, including by companies contracted by the Home Office to provide accommodation and support to people seeking asylum.
To the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC)
- Ensure a sufficient supply of housing for everyone in the UK, in particular by increasing the amount of affordable social housing with long-term tenancies.
- Scrap plans to temporarily remove “house in multiple occupation” (HMO) licenses for people seeking asylum.
To Local Authorities
- Designate an official in each local authority to lead coordination of efforts to support people seeking asylum with the Home Office, companies providing asylum accommodation, schools, general practitioners (GPs), charities, and volunteers.
- Establish working groups and/or dedicated staff members who can conduct outreach in the hotels in each area, while also seeking to involve a range of local actors such as charities, children’s centres, and local schools.
- Ensure that residents of hotel accommodation are aware how to register for a GP and with schools when they arrive in an area and are supported to do so.
- Communicate with neighbouring local authorities on issues relevant to families seeking asylum so that school and GP registration can happen efficiently as people are moved around.
- Establish oversight, reporting, and complaint mechanisms for services provided to people seeking asylum by local authorities.
To Companies Providing Asylum Accommodation
- Give everybody receiving hotel accommodation information about access to legal advice, in a manner similar to that provided in the “moving in” briefing for people placed in dispersal accommodation.
To the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration
- Conduct regular periodic inspections to examine conditions in initial and dispersal accommodation for people seeking asylum, including hotels, military bases, barges, and other ad hoc sites used on a contingency basis, to ensure compliance with contractual obligations, domestic legislation, and international standards.
To the UK Government
- Ensure through legislation that private landlords and rental agencies do not discriminate against people on the basis of refugee or asylum-seeking status.
- Effectively incorporate economic, social, and cultural rights into UK law and policies. In particular, ensure the right to an adequate standing of living, including the rights to adequate housing, food, and social security are incorporated into UK law, giving everyone affected by violations the right to an effective remedy.
- Ensure the right to education in UK law clearly applies to people seeking asylum and gives an effective remedy to all those denied access to education.
- Ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
- Ratify the revised European Social Charter, and include articles 1, 7, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, and 31 among those it undertakes to be bound by.
This report was researched and written by Alex Firth, research and communications officer with Just Fair, and Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior counsel in the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Research support, including assistance with interviews, was provided by Sahar Fetrat, assistant researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch; Mohammed Salih, senior research assistant in the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch; and Susan Aboeid, associate in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. Desk research support was provided by Megan Isaac and Mofe Boyo, research and policy interns at Just Fair; Joya Fadel, associate in the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch; and William Hoffman, coordinator in the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.
Bede Sheppard, deputy director of the Children’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch; Helen Flynn, head of policy, research and campaigns, Just Fair; Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, acting deputy program director, Human Rights Watch; Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor, Human Rights Watch; and Jess McQuail, director, Just Fair, edited the report. The following Human Rights Watch staff also reviewed the report: Kayum Ahmed, special advisor, health and human rights; Yasmine Ahmed, United Kingdom director; Bill Frelick, director, Refugee and Migrant Rights Division; Arvind Ganesan, director, Economic Justice and Rights Division; Karolina Kozik, assistant researcher, Disability Rights Division; Hillary Margolis, senior researcher, Women’s Rights Division; Emilie McDonnell, UK advocacy officer; Judith Sunderland, acting deputy director, Europe and Central Asia Division; and Almaz Teffera, researcher, Europe and Central Asia Division. Joya Fadel; Travis Carr, publications officer; Fitzroy Hepkins, senior administrative manager; and José Martínez, administrative officer, produced the report.
Human Rights Watch and Just Fair would like to thank Care4Calais, South London Refugee Association, and York Migrant Solidarity for providing expert input and invaluable support facilitating interviews for this research, and in particular Laura Rogan, Field Operations Manager at Care4Calais, for assisting with interview support and logistics. We would also like to thank all the refugee and migrant experts, staff, and volunteers who spoke with us during this research. We are particularly grateful to the people who were willing to discuss their own lived experiences with us.